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Two families choose different paths to academic excellence

Jade Larriva-Latt and Derek Lee are both successful students. Her summers are filled with non-scholastic pursuits. For him, summer is the time to sprint ahead in the race to the academic top. The two approaches — one parent-driven, the other more relaxed — have become part of a national debate.

May 04, 2011|By Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times
  • Taiwan immigrant Meiling Lee uses tutors and a strict regimen for fourth son Derek, 16  even monitoring him via surveillance cameras.
Taiwan immigrant Meiling Lee uses tutors and a strict regimen for fourth… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)

Summers for eighth-grader Jade Larriva-Latt are filled with soccer and backpacking, art galleries and museums, library volunteer work and sleep-away camp. There is no summer school, no tutoring.

"They need their childhood," says Jade's father, Cesar Larriva, an associate professor of education at Cal Poly Pomona. "It's a huge concern of mine, the lack of balance from pushing them too hard."

For 10th-grader Derek Lee, summer is the time to sprint ahead in the ferocious race to the academic top. He polishes off geometry, algebra and calculus ahead of schedule and masters SAT content (he earned a perfect 800 on the math portion last fall). This year, he plans to take college-level courses, maybe at UCLA or Stanford.

"You give your kids pressure so they can learn to handle it," says Derek's mother, Meiling Lee, smacking her fist into her hand. "Because finally they have to go out into the real world, and the real world is tough."

Jade and Derek both live in San Marino, a graceful town of boutique businesses, tree-lined streets and a well-heeled populace. Three-fourths of the 13,000 residents, who are primarily Asian and white, boast college or graduate degrees; the median household income of $160,000 is three times the national average.

It is also home to California's highest-performing unified school district, drawing the Lees from Monterey Park in 1986 and the Larriva-Latts from South Pasadena three years ago. Immersed in an educational climate of high expectations — the district last year scored 951 out of 1,000 on the state's Academic Performance Index, based on students' standardized test scores — both Derek and Jade have excelled.

But the two families — one Chinese, one Mexican/Jewish — have made strikingly different decisions about how to pursue academic excellence. One relies on a parent-driven focus on tutoring, advanced classes and testing drills, while the other allows broader choices and a more relaxed approach. Which style produces superior results — and whether culture affects choices — are questions that have become part of a national debate, thanks to the book "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" by Yale law professor Amy Chua.

In her best-selling memoir about raising two daughters, Chua advocates an authoritarian style that pushes kids through discipline, diligence and relentless drilling with little time for fun — no sleepovers, play dates or sports. Chua labels it Chinese parenting, though she acknowledges that other races and ethnicities employ the same approach. She argues that Western parenting does not push children hard enough and is overly concerned with their self-esteem.

The Lees and Larriva-Latts reflect the opposing philosophies. But despite the different paths, their children are succeeding.

Derek's approach is captured on a single Excel spreadsheet listing his schedule from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week. More than 24 hours a week are penciled in for tutoring — Advanced Placement chemistry, AP calculus, AP English — plus Chinese-language school and violin. On Saturdays, he starts at 8:30 a.m. with four hours of Chinese school, followed by nearly six hours of math tutoring, finishing at 11 p.m. With AP exams looming this month, he has added even more study hours.

His mother, Meiling, who created the schedule, is a vivacious, irrepressible immigrant from Taiwan. Developed over 25 years with four sons, her system is not easy or cheap, she warns. Her architect husband makes a comfortable living, but Lee says she forgoes fancy jewelry to afford the $3,000 monthly tutoring costs per child she has sometimes spent.

The program requires strict training, firm rules, constant monitoring, unapologetic scolding and, most of all, a plan that begins in kindergarten.

That's when Lee started her sons on outside math classes with 10 pages of daily drills and frequent visits to bookstores. She made them take violin lessons. But she really kicked into gear when the boys entered middle school, the precursor to the all-important high school years when grades and test scores count for college admission. Between grades eight and 10, she says, having fun is dangerously distracting.

"You have to build the study habit," she explains, likening children to Jell-O that must be molded before hardening.

By eighth grade, Derek was taking a college-level biology course at a tutoring center. His entire high school course load, outside AP classes, SAT test schedule and tutoring to propel him to perfect scores were mapped out.

His mother monitored him via the family's surveillance cameras and even made him study during their one-week Newport Beach summer vacation.

At first he hated the regimen, longing for more free time to shoot Nerf guns and play video games. Two-thirds of the way through, he blew up at his mother. "You're so tired," he said. "You're so angry."

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