Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

A place where 'fail' is the four-letter word

School of Dreams: Making the Grade at a Top American High School, Edward Humes, Harcourt: 400 pp., $25

August 31, 2003|Miles Corwin | Miles Corwin is the author of "And Still We Rise: The Trials and Triumphs of Twelve Gifted Inner City Students," winner of the Pen USA West Award for nonfiction.

The portrayal of minority high school students in books, movies and television usually follows the same tired template: They are invariably gangbanging, drug-dealing, menacing ruffians who need the strong hand of a saintly teacher to spark their interest in learning. In "School of Dreams," Edward Humes too writes about the tribulations of minority students and their relationships with their teachers. But the students Humes focuses on are not black or Latino; they are not from impoverished homes; they do not attend a crime-ridden inner-city high school. Humes' fascinating book chronicles an entirely different group of students, with a different set of challenges. Most of the teenagers he focuses on are overachieving, middle-class Asian kids with ambitious, driven immigrant parents. They attend the No. 1-ranked public high school in California, a school that offers, Humes writes, "a prep-school education with no tuition."

Gretchen Whitney High School in Cerritos is truly a "School of Dreams." This is a school where discipline problems are rare and test scores astronomical. Its students must pass an entrance exam and must then maintain at least a C-plus average. The teachers, skilled and dedicated, foster a love of learning, and the school offers an array of high-powered, challenging courses, including Advanced Placement classes in 35 subjects.

The students are programmed for success because many of the parents have moved from across the world so their children can attend Whitney. Humes writes: "Thousands of Korean and Chinese immigrants have chosen Cerritos over other communities in the United States because of Whitney's reputation. Several real estate agencies in town have focused their businesses -- and made their fortunes -- courting future immigrants by placing advertisements in South Korean newspapers listing homes for sale in Cerritos. Whitney and its achievements are always prominently mentioned in the ads, the lure of the number one public school making an otherwise ordinary, landlocked slice of suburbia irresistible to foreign house hunters."

Because the parents have sacrificed so much, their children are under tremendous pressure to pass the highly competitive entrance exam, which they take in the sixth grade. The desperation to gain admittance to the school -- which spans seventh to 12th grade -- has resulted in numerous professional after-school tutoring academies sprouting up in the neighborhood, Humes writes, "at first catering to sixth-grade students, then fifth, and finally rolling back to first grade and even kindergarten." Once students earn a coveted spot, however, they have no time to savor their success. They immediately embark on a high-pressure six-year journey whose only acceptable destination is admittance to a prestigious university, preferably "HYP" -- the school's shorthand for "Harvard, Yale or Princeton."

To reach this promised land, many students arise before 6 and study until 2 or 3 the next morning, needing frequent infusions of Starbucks triple grande lattes to stay awake. Few of the teenagers at Whitney, Humes contends, take drugs or engage in premarital sex. In fact, he writes, there is peer pressure to avoid sex, drugs and alcohol. These students are uniformly disciplined, goal-oriented, respectful of their parents and obsessively motivated. Compared with the stereotypical American teenager -- a promiscuous, boozing, drug-addled slacker who slides through high school with the minimum of effort -- the resolute teenagers Humes depicts are a welcome alternative. And the result of their onerous schedules is impressive. Their average SAT score in 2001 was 1,343 -- more than 300 points above the national average and the second highest in the country among public high schools. (New York City's Stuyvesant High School is No. 1.) They ace the AP exams, and the overwhelming majority gain acceptance to HYP, a University of California campus or other prestigious private colleges.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|