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George Shirley, 61; Controversial Teacher Pushed Poor Youths to Attend College

September 05, 2004|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

George Shirley, a controversial former high school teacher in Salinas whose belief in the innate abilities of his underprivileged students helped dozens of them enter prestigious colleges -- including Harvard, Yale and Princeton -- during one remarkable year in a brief teaching career, died of cancer Aug. 30 at his Sacramento home. He was 61.

In 1985, Shirley was in his second year as a government and English teacher at Alisal High School in Salinas when he made an unusual class assignment: He instructed his students, most of them children of poor migrant workers, to apply to 10 colleges and universities outside of California and three in state.

For Alisal students, attending the local community or state college was their highest ambition -- if they considered college at all. Disparaged by one student as a "factory for farm workers," Alisal had a 50% dropout rate, and the median SAT score was 700 out of a possible 1,600. English was virtually a foreign language for a majority of Alisal's 1,400 students, and three-quarters of them read below grade level. Shirley's assignment struck some as an exercise in futility.

But the former poverty lawyer, who had switched to teaching for a "lower stress" job, pushed his students to give the assignment their all. He helped them polish their essays, wrote scores of recommendation letters, got application fees waived and even convinced the principal to pay the postage out of Alisal's budget. He told college admissions officers that they should overlook the students' dismal test scores in favor of personal qualifications forged by their real-life struggles.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 08, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
George Shirley obituary -- The obituary of Salinas teacher George Shirley in Sunday's California section gave his age as 61. He was 65. It also omitted the name of a surviving daughter, Kathleen Underwood of Davis, Calif.

The results, for Alisal, were astonishing. In 1986, 84 of the 225 graduates were admitted to four-year colleges that included Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Columbia, Notre Dame and Cornell. That was almost three times the number who went to such colleges the previous year.

About three-quarters successfully completed college and went on to professional careers as teachers, lawyers, doctors and business executives.

Shirley did not fare as well. The year that he helped send a record number of Alisal graduates to college, he was fired. His dismissal came amid reports that he had psychological problems and that he had mismanaged a student trip to Washington, D.C., that had left the district with a $6,000 tab.

Although the official reasons were never given, anyone who knew Shirley could not have been completely mystified by his firing. A renegade who broke rules and spoke his mind, Shirley bristled at injustice and wasn't afraid to bite the hand that paid him $18,000 a year. His recommendation letters for college-bound students contained what he acknowledged was "a direct attack on the school," arguing that the colleges should disregard the applicants' low grades and paucity of advanced classes because Alisal was a segregated campus that offered "a lousy education."

"He knew what he was," Laura, his wife of 12 years, told The Times last week. "He was a rabble-rouser."

After his dismissal, Shirley dabbled in politics and did some private legal work. He was inundated by offers to turn his Alisal experiences into a movie but none of the scripts met his approval.

No stranger to adversity, Shirley had been a Tennessee "hillbilly" who overcame poverty to earn a law degree at the University of Denver in 1966. After doing some teaching and legislative work, he spent the 1970s working on poverty issues and civil rights for California Rural Legal Assistance and similar organizations in Florida and Minnesota.

By the early 1980s he had a private trial practice in Monterey, but assumed such a heavy caseload -- much of it pro bono -- that, in late 1983, he suffered a breakdown outside the county courthouse and woke up in a hospital the next day.

Diagnosed with mental exhaustion, he took anti-depressants and spent the next year at home taking care of his son, Bryan. (In addition to his wife and Bryan, Shirley is survived by sons Andrew, 11, Robert, 8, and James, 6; two grandchildren; and a brother.)

When he recovered, he decided it would be therapeutic to teach. The Salinas Union High School District hired him as a substitute but soon offered him a one-year contract to teach at Alisal High.

His unconventionality was evident his first day on the job. Pam Bernhard, an Alisal counselor who would become his primary ally in the college drive, remembered that Shirley took the outdated history textbook and just "tore it up and threw it in the garbage can." He used the U.S. Constitution as his teaching manual, brought guest speakers to class, made his students read the newspaper and discussed current affairs.

It pained him to see how limited their horizons were.

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