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Privilege and pressure

Is the push for excellence at private Harvard-Westlake School too suffocating?

October 28, 2013|James Rainey
  • Students listen to teacher Ted Walch speak at a class called "Philosophy in Art and Science" at Harvard-Westlake High School in Studio City in September.
Students listen to teacher Ted Walch speak at a class called "Philosophy… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

When he arrived at one of Los Angeles' preeminent private high schools seven years ago, baseball coach Matt LaCour knew how to win. He had a CIF championship under his belt.

But the self-described "public school kid" was now at Harvard-Westlake School, the destination for many children of L.A.'s business and entertainment elite.

In the past, the baseball team didn't win much and routinely let players skip half a double-header. LaCour sought to impose a new ethos: His players' non-class time should be centered on baseball.

That prompted a backlash from some parents, a minor rebellion on the team and suggestions that LaCour should back off. The coach said he eventually "changed a lot of my steadfast, hard rules. It was partly because I had to. And partly because I changed my perspective."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, October 29, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Harvard-Westlake: An article in the Oct. 28 LATExtra section about Harvard-Westlake School misspelled the first name of administrator Jeanne Huybrechts as Jean.

Last spring, Harvard-Westlake, the perennial also-ran from Studio City, won the Southern Section Division 1 championship. Baseball America magazine declared the team the best in the nation. And LaCour collected a pile of coach-of-the-year honors.

The struggle to balance academics and extracurricular activities exemplifies the challenges confronting a high school that is counted among the nation's most acclaimed.

The $32,000-a-year private academy boasts a national debate champion, more National Merit Scholarship semifinalists per capita than all but one school in California, 16 state sports championships for individuals and teams and as many Yale enrollees over a four-year period as the 236-year-old Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.

But at a school that appears to have every possible advantage, officials have recognized that going all out all the time can raise collateral issues.

Fourteen students dropped out two years ago citing depression -- a cluster of departures that worried some faculty members. This fall, half the students surveyed by the high school newspaper, the Chronicle, cited the "stressful atmosphere" as a needed focus for change. One current instructor privately bemoaned the "many outcome-driven families" who view anything short of an Ivy League admission as failure.

Harvard-Westlake isn't alone in worrying about the burden on students.

"It's a plain fact that high school kids today are in an environment where the competition and stress is much more dramatic than a generation ago," said John Chubb, president of the National Assn. of Independent Schools.

Born in 1991 by the merger of a boys and a girls school, Harvard-Westlake is at watershed moment. Founding President Thomas C. Hudnut retired last spring to valedictories and fireworks and was replaced by Rick Commons, who came from the old-line Groton School of Massachusetts.

Commons' imperative is to maintain Harvard-Westlake's ambition while addressing concerns that the unremitting push for top honors can be suffocating. "The great challenge ... in schools where excellence is a value is to simultaneously have balance as a value," said Commons, 47.

But he takes over a school where advantages are much more apparent than deficiencies.

Harvard-Westlake is home to a university-quality science center, a gift of Berkshire Hathaway magnate Charles Munger; an annual student film festival that draws judges such as television producer Norman Lear; and a staff so content that the school this year topped a ranking as "the best place to work in the Southland."

In the years since the merger, Harvard-Westlake has counted actors Jason Segel and Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, NBA players Jason and Jarron Collins and Spencer Rascoff, chief executive of the online real estate firm Zillow, among its graduates.

Regulating who gets in is central to the school's success. Most of those admitted have scored at the high end of the Independent School Entrance Exam. "We bring in a group that we already know is good at test taking," more than one administrator said.

Once on campus, students are engaged by teachers such as Antonio Nassar, who has a doctorate in physics and has been known to leap on a desktop to emphasize a point or play "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" to introduce a talk on Descartes and refracted light. Nontraditional courses such as Statistics and Sports and Ethics: Philosophical Traditions and Everyday Morality foster critical thinking.

Nine deans track the progress of about 30 seniors each while also carrying about 70 underclassmen on their caseloads -- a contrast to even the highest-ranked public schools, where counselors often juggle hundreds of students. More than a quarter of Harvard-Westlake's class of 2013 entered Stanford and Ivy League colleges.

"A lot of people here are driven. They want to work really hard," said Noa Yadidi, co-editor in chief of the Chronicle. "It only makes you want to work harder and reach higher."

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