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Base School Has Right Stuff

Workers at Edwards have a little-known perk: Their children get a high-caliber education.

June 16, 2003|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

Lancaster parent Don Logan doesn't have a good feeling about his local public schools.

From his perspective, they seem overcrowded, dangerous and academically mediocre. It didn't help this month when the state removed the top administrators at Lancaster's Antelope Valley High School for their failure to improve students' standardized test scores.

But those issues are academic for the 47-year-old NASA administrator. Like a small but steadily increasing number of civilians working at Edwards Air Force Base, Logan has qualified to send his 16-year-old daughter, Jessica, to one of the highest-performing public high schools in the region -- the 400-student Desert High, located within the heavily guarded gates of the famous aviation test site.

The campus is an anxious parent's dream: It's small, safe and graffiti-free, and the cool kids are the ones who do their homework.

The frequent booms are not from gang violence, but from the experimental aircraft breaking the sound barrier over the desolate border between Los Angeles and Kern counties.

Desert High's standardized test scores are the best of any high school in Kern County and the nearby Antelope Valley. Its 2002 Academic Performance Index score was 739, placing it among the top 20% of all California schools.

Of this year's 82-member senior class, about 75% are going on to college -- from West Point to Temple University to the University of Texas -- and many of the rest are heading into the military.

Two on-base elementary schools and a middle school are equally successful. And while their primary goal is to educate on-base military kids, more students in recent years have come from the families of Edwards' civilian workers -- the private-sector aerospace engineers, support staff and administrators like Logan who support the base's mission of testing the world's most daringly innovative flying machines.

In the last six years, the number of nonmilitary students at the four schools has jumped from 225 to about 475 in the overall enrollment of about 1,800, said Mike Summerbell, assistant superintendent for tiny Muroc Joint Unified School District, which oversees the Edwards schools and three others off base.

Downsizing of the armed forces is one reason spaces have opened up for nonmilitary students: In the last decade, total military personnel at Edwards has shrunk from 3,800 to 3,200.

But Summerbell thinks the word has also spread among the civilian employees in the Mojave Desert's "Aerospace Valley" about the base's phenomenal job perk -- the equivalent of private-school education for free.

"I wish I'd had my kids go to school out here," said John Haire, Edwards' civilian spokesman. "I considered it, but only after it was too late -- after the kids had gotten established socially in their schools. But for a long time, I didn't know it was possible to enroll them."

It's not always easy to get into Desert High. Nonmilitary parents hoping to transfer their kids to base schools often are put on a waiting list, and are the first to be bumped if the military population increases.

"People feel like it's a real prestigious thing to have their children go here," said Muroc Supt. Bertha Boullion. "We have wing commanders' kids and NASA engineers' kids."

Others agree that Desert High feeds off the rarefied culture at Edwards, whose legendary Air Force Flight Test Center has been responsible for some of the most important milestones in aviation, including Chuck Yeager's first-ever breach of the sound barrier in 1947.

On the surface, the culture of the air base is difficult to discern at Desert High. Student dress is as casual as at any public school, and perhaps more so due to the desert climate. But military values, including a sense of discipline and hard work, predominate.

Children of military personnel also know their misbehavior can be reported to their parents' superiors and harm mom's or dad's standing in the service.

"It's not that our school is any harder or easier than any other schools," English teacher Bob Favarato said. "It's just that most of the kids here do most of the work most of the time. It boils down to values."

It also helps that the main business at Edwards is rocket science.

Engineers and other base scientists are among the judges of Desert High's yearly science fair, which is mandatory for students taking college preparatory courses.

The school prides itself on its science and math programs. This year, junior Cody Lewis won first place in the mammalian biology category at the state science fair. The year before, he said, he worked with base scientists on a project studying wind energy, collecting his data on Edwards' airfield.

"I just love it out here," said Lewis, a resident of nearby Rosamond whose mother is a Desert High science teacher. "It's like we're in our own little system."

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