A liberal arts education seems out of place in a culture that defines people largely by what they do A liberal arts education doesn't prepare you to do anything in particular, at least, not anything that's likely to bring in a steady paycheck. That's why it's called a liberal education, as opposed to a servile one — it is not in the service of anything. It has no end outside itself; there is no practical application. Liberal education is about perfecting man's reason, about instilling a habit of wonder and intellectual inquiry, about knowledge for its own sake.
Law school, med school, business school — all servile educations preparing people to provide a service, albeit a high-priced one. Liberal education proposes something loftier than training people to be tradesmen — it trains people to be people. It fosters an appreciation of and a concern for civilization, the state, and the arts.
"Get your head out of the clouds," scoffs the self-styled realist. "People need to eat We don't live in a society where slaves do all the manual labor while the masters sit around and argue philosophy." Point granted. And it is true that high schools need to impart to*students basic math and English skills and to prepare them for college. They can’t function as Socratic academies But these goals need not be pursued to the exclusion of all else. Not for naught are the high school years known as "formative," and if the less practical aspects of education are neglected, we risk a world of high-achieving automatons.
In our opinion, the better the school — the better its students' mastery of basic math and English skills — the better the cultural formation ought to be. We looked at some of the county's top academic achievers, then ranked them according to how well they seemed to be forming the whole person, how much emphasis they placed on "useless" liberal education.
We do not pretend to have provided a complete account of these schools. Rather, we concentrated on whatever aspects we thought were most emphasized and exemplified by those to whom we spoke. These were the people presented to us by the schools for interviews, and we think what they chose to emphasize has its own interest and provides its own account of the life of the schools.
Number 1: La Jolla Country Day
Besides being academically excellent, la Jolla Country Day lists creating a habit of “intellectual exploration” before anything else in its mission statement. Iliey back this up with a comprehensive approach to education, one that recognizes the value and even the indispensability of subjects like music, music theory, art, art history, and drama. It’s more than getting a kid to sing a song or paint a picture; it’s an introduction to a culture. The school fosters an atmosphere in which the students approach these subjects not as electives required for graduation, but as something worthwhile and uplifting.
Number 2: The Bishop's School
Bishop’s declined to let us speak to teachers and administrators, but we were able to interview this year’s ASB president, and the picture he painted was similar to la Jolla Country Day — kids have a desire for more than college prep academics.
Number 3: St. Augustine
Teddy Roosevelt said, “To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to create a menace to society.” The principal at St. Augustine said that teaching men to make “intelligent moral and ethical decisions” was central to the school’s work. Exposure to and immersion in the arts is also a priority, and the school provided a compelling case for single-sex education.
Number 4: La Jolla
The high level of academic achievement doesn’t come at the expense of cultural endeavors. Instead the school believes that well-roundedness aids students in traditional core subjects. Extracurricular academic teams are always among the county’s elite. They are the only public school west of the Mississippi that offers both Iatin and Greek.
Number 5: Poway
Poway’s schools enjoy a good reputation, which causes people to move there, producing what principal Gerald Leininger calls “the good situation of an upward spiral.” Besides expecting great things academically, the community turns out for music and drama events.
Number 6: Coronado
The school pushes the notion of self-directed education to the limit with its Oxford program, but the academic numbers are sound. The School of the Arts is impressive in scope and execution.
Number 7: Torrey Pines
Impeccable numbers, but too numbers-driven. The college-prep/career-prep aspect of education seems to overshadow all else. The band is defunct, and honor students spoke of avoiding arts requirements because of lack of time. However, the school is giving the community what it wants.
Number 8: Francis Parker
Francis Parker declined to be profiled for this story. Students we interviewed off campus described it as a place where sports and core academics are emphasized, while more cultural pursuits are all but ignored. College preparation and college selection are stressed from freshman year on.
Number 9: Julian
Julian caught our attention because it ranked fourth in SAT scores among public schools, despite being so small and so rural. They are doing a lot with a little. The high school and the community seem to have a truly symbiotic relationship, one that encourages students to become citizens through fundraisers and community events.
Number 10: Mount Carmel
Despite its overwhelming size, 3200 students, Mount Carmel scores well in academic categories while offering many curricular and extracurricular outlets for students in music, the graphic arts, and drama.
9490 Genesee Avenue, La Jolla
- La Jolla Country Day School (upper school)
- DISTRICT: Private
- PERCENTAGE OF GRADUATES ATTENDING COLLEGE (1997): 100%
- NUMBER OF TEACHERS: 36
- NUMBER OF STUDENTS: 330
- ETHNIC MIX: 74% white, 26% minority
I think the well-roundedness of education is important,” says Ken Crady, assistant headmaster of La Jolla Country Day School. “I have our mission statement taped above my computer ‘Preparing individuals for a lifetime of intellectual exploration, personal growth, and social responsibility.’ If we’ve done that, we’ve educated these children, because they are going to keep doing that for all of their lives…intellectual growth in the larger sense — left brain, right brain, the whole thing. Richness of responsibility to the culture is what we’re talking about and what we think we do. We do it through traditional means and by insisting that people participate in as much as they can. If I were looking for someone around here who just did the books, I don’t think I could find one. Although we are a college preparatory school, 100 percent, nobody is just doing that."
LJCD requires its students to take two units of fine arts, which amounts to four one-semester courses. All students take art history, music appreciation, and drama history. Speech is also required. “They mostly love [the classes],” Crady says of his students’ reaction, “and most of them take other art classes as well.”
Those other classes include acting/directing, AP (advance placement) general art, two levels of drawing, two of photography, and three of painting. The music department offers two levels of music theory. Core education departments also feature electives. In the English department, two levels of creative writing, expository writing, and journalism; in Social Science, a course called Cross-Cultural American Studies; and in Science, astronomy and biology. On top of all this, the school has a drama troupe that puts on full-scale productions, a band, a string orchestra, a chorus, a madrigal group, even student art shows. Why all the extras?
It wouldn’t be La Jolla Country Day without them, Crady says. “To take those things out would be stultifying. There is a richness in being able to see the same kid in your AP class be the captain of the football team and be in Guys and Dolls and have a painting in the art show and be the leader of the Toys-for-Tots campaign at the holiday time.
“We don’t have anything to sell in terms of size. In traditional high school thinking, you’ve got to be big to do a lot of those things. We’re small and we do them because of involvement. We’re too small to have an orchestra, but we have a huge orchestra. It goes all the way down through the middle school; it’s a 60-piece orchestra. Who has a 60-piece orchestra?”
Marysmedes Pike plays violin in that orchestra. The 18-year-old senior also plays in a school string quartet (“They play at donor parties,” explains Crady), sings in the chorus and madrigals, and is captain of the girls’ soccer team. Small in stature, she wears her auburn hair straight down and often flashes a wide, friendly smile. She didn’t choose Country Day, her parents did, but she has chosen to stay. “I moved out here from North Carolina when I was in sixth grade,” Pike explains. “I was going to go to a public school, but my parents read in a newspaper about the violin program here, and they thought, ‘Great, she can take violin lessons at school.’ I’ve had the choice to leave all the years I’ve been here, and there was that big choice between eighth grade and high school, and a lot of my friends left. I thought I’d at least try it out, so I did and I like it. I can have friends at a public school, but I don’t need to be in a public school atmosphere. I prefer this atmosphere.”
“This atmosphere” of which Pike speaks is, in a word, intimate. At 330 students and 36 teachers.
7607 La Jolla Boulevard, La Jolla
- The Bishop's School
- DISTRICT: Private
- PERCENTAGE OF GRADUATES ATTENDING COLLEGE (1997): 100%
- NUMBER OF TEACHERS: 72
- NUMBER OF STUDENTS (7th-12th): 600
- ETHNIC MIX: 74% white, 26% minority (Asian, Latino, African-American)
Bishop’s School ASB president Joey Charat is as close to being a poster child for prep school as you could hope to meet. Close-cut blond hair, strong jaw, white long-sleeve Polo, white T-shirt poking up from underneath, khakis. Harvard-bound, on the football team, enthusiastic, and proud. The following is his account of the school he has attended for six years.
I had the choice in sixth grade, if I wanted to stay at my school or go to Torrey Pines or go to Bishop’s. My parents gave me the sovereignty to make my own decision. My sister had gone to Bishop’s in seventh and eighth grade, and she liked it. She told me that the friendships are great, there’s a lot of support, there’s not really any animosity between groups. It’s not cliquey or anything like that. I asked some friends who were going to Torrey Pines, and they told me different things — it’s a big school, it’s not really personal, you can’t really build a close friendship with the teacher because it’s such a large class size.
At Bishop’s, it’s the exact opposite. The average class is 12, 13 people. It’s really one-on-one, and you can always go in after school for even more attention from the teacher. It’s fun, it’s everyone learning. We’re sharing our knowledge. You don’t just learn from the teachers, you also learn from your classmates. It’s spirited. Everyone’s proud to go to Bishop’s, I think. We’re all after the same thing, which is education and friendships.
What makes Bishop's a good school?
I think it has to do with the small class sizes, great faculty — everyone there is academically driven. The standardized test scores, we’re proud of having high scores, but that’s not really what we’re most proud of. We don’t really feel like it tests our true education. We’re all knowledgeable about different things, and our conversations reflect that. We’re proud of how we feel after we’ve graduated.
What makes the faculty great?
A good teacher is someone who you can learn a lot from, and yet, at the same time, they’re willing to learn from you. You don’t feel like you’re swallowing all this information and regurgitating it. Rather, you’re listening to what they say, and then you’re adding your own opinion. In my English classes, we always have class discussions after we read, and it’s an open forum where all the students are talking back and forth among themselves. The teacher isn’t always dictating exactly what we’re saying, isn’t really running the class, but rather just overseeing it, making sure the discussion is going somewhere productive.
In my chemistry class, which you’d think would be a class where you just sit and take notes, we talked about the implications of chemistry and the implications they teach about different things. Like the Heisenberg principle and how that, having to do with physics, can deal with other things.
If standardized test scores don't test your true education, how would you characterize it?
A good education is one where you can retain a lot of what you’ve learned and yet at the same time build your own ideas. You always have facts to draw upon — if you’re going to make a statement, you have something to back it up. You feel comfortable with the education level that you’re at after you’ve completed your schooling years.
How about moral formation?
[The school] has always been about forming a well-rounded child. Not just one who can get a high SAT score, but one who’s a good citizen of his community, who has a set of morals that he follows strictly, where he believes in what he says and has a strong sense of what’s good and what’s not. We take a required course in ethics; it makes you familiar with different philosophers and morality in America. You learn to recognize that there’s a lot of bad stuff going on out there, and lots of people believe in things that obviously are not right.
We’re working right now on an honor code. This year, we instilled an honesty policy; it fosters honesty in test taking. [The code] is like a statement of fundamental principles—character and moral integrity and things like that.
We have a lot of education dealing with sex and drugs. We have a health class freshman year, and then we do other different programs and presentations to make sure we know what’s out there, and we’re smart about what we do. I’ve been to a few public school parties with my other friends, and it’s a different world. I’m so glad it doesn’t happen at our school; we don’t have to make decisions in situations we’d much rather not be in.
Family plays a big role; parents are always making sure that their kids do what’s right. And if your friends caught you doing something stupid, they’d be on your back before you knew what happened. There’s a strong community at Bishop’s that abhors stuff like that. The faculty, the administration, your friends, and your family — everyone wants to make sure that you don’t digress into something unhealthy. After a while, you have your own self-discipline.
Is attention given to the arts?
The school requires that you take three semesters of an art course, whether it be drama or music or visual arts, because they want an education that’s based on the arts and the humanities and everything like that. Everyone has an interest outside of books. We have lots of athletic kids who play three sports a year, who sing, who swim, who do everything. It’s fun to see.
I’m taking ceramics. I love that course. I just sit there at the wheel by myself, and you just take this ball of clay and you mold it into whatever you want and you throw it on the wheel, and before you know it, it’s a big vase.
There’s about eight or ten kids who all play brass instruments, and they’re awesome. Our choir has won first-place awards in western regional tournaments. The drama program is unbelievable. I was just at a play last weekend, Feature Presentation. It was hilarious; the actors had great stage presence. There’s Photo 1,2, and 3. I have a friend who’s taken Photo for three years now. It’s his hobby. He’ll wake up at 5:00 on a Saturday morning to catch the waves with the sunrise. They require these [arts] courses, but kids never feeI depressed when they have to go to that period. They’re always stoked.
City of God, City of Man
3266 Nutmeg Street, North Park
- St. Augustine High School
- DISTRICT: Private
- PERCENTAGE OF GRADUATES ATTENDING COLLEGE (1997): 98%
- NUMBER OF TEACHERS 39
- NUMBER OF STUDENTS: 600
- ETHNIC MIX: 50% white, 31% Latino, 12.5% Asian and Pacific Islanders, 5.5% African-American, 1% Native American
St. Augustine High School principal Father John Sanders, OSA — a compact, expressive man who hunches and gestures and scrunches up his face as he speaks, as if physically urging the words along — doesn’t leave art to the artists. “I think at a school like this, we want young men coming out having attempted a painting, having attempted a musical instrument...having taken a speech class. I want them to want to sample being in a play. These are things you want them to have done, besides succeeding in the classroom.
“Young people are innately impressed by skills that their peers have. One of the reasons our art program is so successful is that they see people that they respect having their work hung in the main office or in the library or in the art competitions. They’re saying, ‘I wonder if I can do that,' and the art teacher says, ‘You can do it,’ and they find their early successes. I think a lot of young men come out of here knowing they have a whole lot more skills than they ever thought they possessed.”
Every year, Sanders picks one student-produced picture to hang on the wall of his office. One of those pictures is of a rose. It is the work of Rick Phillips, football player, volleyball player, ASB vice president, and academic league member. “I just really like art,” he says. “Most people are left brain or right brain — some people are good at sciences, and some people are good at art. I love putting the two together — being able to take something scientific and convert it to something you can draw.” His advanced art class has just finished making linoleum carvings and is beginning lithographs, with brass sculpting to follow.
Kynan Ricks, basketball player, is “not particularly artistic, but they require you to take art classes here, and it was really enriching. Art 1 was drawing. We did different types of drawing — pen-and-ink and just color drawings. The next year, painting, was really almost like a craft class. We painted fronds from a palm tree and we did things that really got us into it, really touched our imaginations.”
Sanders’s interest in the arts for all students comes from his view of what an educated man should be and, to that end, what he should know. It extends beyond creation into appreciation. “We’re preparing people for life,” he explains. “Part of being a cultured adult is being able to go to an art museum and say, I like that, and I like it for this reason.’ Sometimes you go to a museum and you say, ‘I like it just because I like it,’ and that's fine, too, but that won’t keep you going to art museums. I want our young men to be able to go to an opera and be able to listen to it and understand why it is good.” He wants students to be “grounded, to be able to say to someone. That’s Baroque, that’s this, that’s that.’ It’s really important, and you foster it in the climate.”
The climate is Catholic as well as cultural, a fact hinted at by the mini-cloister walk just inside the front gate. The outside wall of the chapel forms one side. The older Mission-style buildings are compact and cozy. The newer building’s are brick boxes, painted white with burgundy trim to match the color scheme of the original buildings. The campus is pristine.
“We’ve got an awful lot of religious people on the staff—seven priests and a sister,” says Sanders, making the religiosity explicit. “That allows us to do things like penance services. We have a day in the fall and a day in the spring where the religion class is prepped, and they go down in a group to a team of confessors. The sacramental life is pretty strong.”
Plus, “it’s run by a religious order [the Augustinians]. We have been doing a school Mass every week on Friday for 75 years. (Catholicity) is part of — not even the curriculum — part of the whole fiber of the school. A lot of people are afraid to be different. Hence, they try to downplay their identity. I think that’s crazy. We are what we are. I am very proud to say, ‘We’re a Catholic school, and because of it, we stand for this, we’re loyal to this, we teach this.’ We operate with great charity and compassion and understanding, but we have standards.”
Perhaps because it is a private school, St. Augustine is able to avoid careful language such as, “Torrey Pines High School will prepare its graduates to be: healthy individuals who establish, practice, and support physical and mental wellness, complex thinkers who synthesize information and make critical distinctions to arrive at a decision,” and “world citizens and active community participants who demonstrate maturity by interacting well and working cooperatively in the community.” (Taken from the Torrey Pines High School Expected School wide Learning Results.)
When I ask Sanders for a mission statement, he replies, “Prepare young men to live in the city of God and the city of man. To be able to make intelligent moral and ethical decisions. To have strong sense of community involvement and an obligation to help others.” At another point, he says, “Morality is really at the core of what we’re all about. If there was one skill, and only one, that a young person could leave the school with, it would be to understand the difference between right and wrong, and how to make those decisions of what’s right and wrong.”
He goes on to recite a story that, though it does not involve college, is a success by those criteria. “There was a student when I taught here in the early ’80s. He had no desire to go to college at all. He married a lady who was very bright — she had a master’s degree. I asked him, ‘Aren’t you concerned that at some point, she’s going to be so much better educated than you that you’re going to have a hard time?’
“He said, ‘No. I was taught how to reason intelligently. I was taught how to speak intelligently. I was taught how to reason between right and wrong. I have a great deal of self-esteem.’ He became involved in construction; he’s been very successful. They’ve been married probably 10, 12 years, and they are a very happily married young Catholic couple with three children.”
Science teacher Ned Wilson puts it this way; “I’m after that Christian gentleman who can function in society as a guy, who knows right from wrong and can be a good man, a strong father. Or if he’s not a father, be involved in things. Be educated in the scientific world and as much as he can in the mathematical. Be able to read and write. Maybe he won’t pick up a Rosary bead, but it’s important that he understand that and know where to come for help and how to ask for it.”
Ned has been here 32 years. When vacancies do open up for teachers, Sanders interviews “for that religious dimension really carefully. That’s critical. I always look for good, practicing role models for a young man. If you have people who are filled with faith, people that have standards, people who are magnanimous, that’s the core piece. We can assist people in getting any additional training they might need, but you can’t teach them faith. You can’t teach them values, you can’t teach them Catholic morality. By the time someone is the age that you’d be hiring them for teaching, that better be a piece of them.”
“That religious dimension” is required in athletic coaches as well. “They need to be men of faith. Those people are very key as far as forming young people. A lot of decisions they make are about justice issues. Students learn a lot of human virtue — dying a little bit for the good of the team.”
Athletics is, of course, a big part of the life of a boys’ prep school like St. Augustine. But Sanders does not talk about the varsity teams or any other interscholastic competition. Instead, he boasts of the school’s intramural sports program — “32 football teams, 30 basketball teams, volleyball, Ping-Pong. Lunchtime, Monday through Thursday. They announce the scores in the morning, and there will be a game of the week, and they’ll have MVPs for the various divisions, and there will be an extended lunch for the Super Bowl. We’ll have 300 boys in intramurals.”
Now he tips his hand and reveals why he wants to talk about a program that includes more students, rather than one that wins league championships. Father Sanders is a man with a theory of education, and intramural sports fit right in. “There’s lots of rules. Maybe once a year, something will be appealed to the intramural commissioner’s office. Research shows that young men like lots of rules, that they feel most secure when there’s a heavy structure.
“Michael Gourian, who is the foremost authority on research about young males, says there are two things a young man must know to succeed: what are the rules, and who’s in charge. If young men know those two things, they can build community and the rest of the process themselves.” And because St. Augustine is an all-boys school, Sanders feels free to go heavy on the structure.
He continues, warming to the subject. “We know that young men and young women process things differently, because of brain structure. In all the research, it’s clear, clear, clear.
I was recently on a panel on KPBS on single-gender schools. There are nine here in the state at the junior high level. What makes me laugh is, they’re doing it as experimental — to see if it works. It’s been working for 200 years. I’m sure if you were looking for a list of schools with low scores, you would never run into a single-gender school that’s low-performing.”
The moral and cultural life enjoy lofty status at St. Augustine, and as someone who came from a co-ed public high school where there was little crossover between the football players and the artists, I wonder if a basketball player like Kynan Ricks being able to use a phrase like “it really touched our imaginations” without wincing is due in part to a freedom from the machismo some young men adopt when around young women.
Kynan also tells me that, while some guys are just associated with the Catholic life of the school, “a lot more guys are really devoted to it, and I think it actually helps, in that some of the guys really use that as a guiding light for going through education — the actions that they take.” Included in that group are “a good percentage of guys” who don’t drink “out of their religious preferences.” Bending the will in humility to God has got to conflict with the newly asserted adolescent male ego. Perhaps the absence of women makes that easier.
But the advantages of single-gender education Sanders points to arc academic. Ninety-eight percent of students aren’t getting into college by virtue of their virtue. Fifty percent of the students are nonwhite. “Research shows that minority males do much better in single-sex settings,” he claims. Further, “getting good grades is a very big issue. You’re not going to find people here that don’t want to succeed because they don’t want to look uncool.” Sanders doesn’t connect this last explicitly to single-gender education, but again, I wonder.
Nor does he hold up single-gender education as the sole ingredient for success. Sanders interviews each student upon entry to determine what his needs and skills are. The school offers a shepherding program to teach things like note taking and study skills. Rick Phillips says of the teachers, “You can always get help from them whenever you need it. Most of the teachers are coaches, so they’re around [after school) a lot more often than others.” Parents are kept informed and involved. And, Sanders emphasizes, “math and verbal skills — just hammer that. Write, write, write, write. That’s in the tradition of our order. Heavy writing skills, communication skills, being able to debate.”
The results are SAT scores that, when broken down, reveal a widening gap as you go from first fifth to second fifth to third fifth. Sanders points to this as an indicator of the success of those famous middle students — his tops are not off the charts, but his middles are better than the average middle.
Both Kynan and Rick are intelligent, successful students. Kynan wants to get into pre-med, Rick is thinking about majoring in engineering or computer science. They both can attest to the school’s commitment to the arts, and both are glad they came here, despite the lack of girls. Kynan said that students allowed the faith to influence their moral choices, but I’m curious to hear more about how Fr. Sanders’s emphasis on moral formation plays out among the students.
I ask about the big three — sex, drinking, and drugs. Kynan on sex: “I can’t really say. I know a lot of guys talk about it. It’s present; it’s going to be present at any school. There’s a strong interaction between St. Augustine and Our Lady of Peace, so, I’m sure it goes on. I think among the students, it’s more accepted than rejected. The faculty really try to encourage chastity, waiting till you’re married, doing the correct thing. I think a good percentage of the students adhere to the chastity side of it. That often becomes a topic of discussion in religion classes.”
We’ve already heard his opinion on drinking, except his claim that “a lot of guys want to seem like they’re macho.” Machismo isn't dead, just reduced. As for drugs, Kynan knows they are used, but not to what extent.
I ask Rick what percentage of students are sexually active. “I’d say probably 50 percent. We don’t discuss it much. You get the macho jokes and everything, which is going to go along with the territory, because we are an all-guys school.”
Drugs? “The drug program (St. Augustine is now in its first year of random drug testing for any student playing a sport) has really helped. It used to be a huge problem. The program has been a really good deterrent. They set it up where it’s not trying to go out and catch you, it’s just a deterrent. If you go out to a party Saturday night and somebody throws a beer at you, you say, ‘No, I don’t think I’m going to do that.’ (But) I’m not going to lie. A lot of guys I know have done it. A lot of it would probably be pot smoking, but I know some guys that have done worse — acid, cocaine.”
He characterizes some drug use as experimentation. “I think a lot of guys here decided not to do it again, because we do a lot of education with stuff like that. The same with the sex issue.”
A final point of interest — though he did say that students, need to be computer literate coming out of high school, Fr. Sanders made no mention of preparing students for a technologically advanced future, the exact nature of which is unknown. Rather, he takes “two days with the freshmen in the fall — one day on the history of the school, one day on the traditions of the school. It has always been sort of a family. They realize that they’re part of something much bigger than themselves, that they belong to something that long preceded them and will continue long after them. There’s safety in that, there’s identity in that. I think for young people, that might be the most important thing we can give them today: a sense of belonging. Talk to local law enforcement. Ask them, if they could give something to young people...they’d say, ‘A sense of belonging.’”
145 or Above IQ
750 Nautilus Street, La Jolla
- La Jolla High School
- DISTRICT: San Diego Unified
- PERCENTAGE OF GRADUATES ATTENDING COLLEGE (1997): 65% four-year, 27% two-year
- NUMBER OF TEACHERS: 75
- NUMBER OF STUDENTS: 1630
- ETHNIC MIX (’96-'97): 63.6% white, 24.8% Hispanic, 6.4% Asian, 2.1% African-American, 2% Indo-Chinese, 1.2% other
That’s La Jolla, I thought, upon reading the high average SAT scores at La Jolla High School. Of course the scores are high, they’re the rich kids. Not so, says teacher Gwen Ickstadt. “It’s really quite a different environment than people who aren’t familiar with the campus think. They think it’s stereotypical La Jollan. But 47 percent of our kids don’t live in La Jolla. They come from Barrio Logan, Clairemont, Mira Mesa, and University City. And those kids’ SAT scores are included in that SAT average.”
Ickstadt, short, gray-haired, with a round, honest face, speaks with a reserved enthusiasm. A teacher for 30 years, she has spent the last 8 here teaching Humanities Seminar, a course in which, according to the school handbook, “emphasis (is) on developing critical thinking and writing skills; as well as on self-direction, responsibility, and motivation through seminar, group work, and independent study.”
“I’m the history component of Humanities Seminar,” Ickstadt says, “that is, European history, U.S. history, and art history, and those are all at the advanced placement level. Students may apply from other schools in the district to come to La Jolla High to participate in the seminar. One requirement is 145 or above IQ. They usually start in the 9th grade and continue through 10th and 11th.”
Back to the high average SAT scores at La Jolla. Is the school simply supplying kids math and verbal skills to get high SAT scores and go on to college? Or do they want to educate the whole child? “We’re treating the whole child,” Ickstadt answers. “That’s why we have the seminar program. Social skills, being courteous, and being polite are things that you need to know outside of or in addition to your SAT scores. Those are very definitely things that we’re concerned with, and we work daily at addressing them on this campus. We impress upon [students] that with their SAT scores and their GPAs, they’re creating a paper trail, and what that paper trail does is give them opportunities and open doors for them. But once they have those opportunities, once the doors are open, then the real person is standing there with his or her vulnerability, and if they have no social skills, if they haven’t learned how to get along with people, how to share the responsibility or meet a common goal, then they’re going to come up short.”
The point is a good one. In this high-tech age the ability to communicate is suffering. Engineering and computer companies are finding that employees, so highly trained in technical areas, have trouble expressing themselves non-technically. But it’s not the point I had in mind. I want to know if La Jolla High School believes in liberal arts education. Do they give their students a taste of everything? Ickstadt answers, “As a comprehensive high school, we make a concerted effort to touch on every aspect we can afford to do. If students are able to meet what are called the core requirements, the classes in English, math, science, and history that are graduation requirements, then beyond that they are able to take electives. We try to provide opportunities in music and art and poetry so that the kids do have an opportunity to balance the academic classes.”
La Jolla’s course list includes classes in art (studio and history), design, ceramics, drama, band, and chorus. Students must have at least a semester of one of these to graduate. There is a class called Contemporary Voices in Literature. The school offers six levels of French, five of Spanish, three of Japanese, four of Latin, plus classical Greek. The science department includes physiology and marine research classes along with traditional biology, chemistry, and physics. In social studies, beyond the usual history and economics, students can take political science, psychology, sociology, and a course called Philosophy in Literature, which the handbook says is a “full year study on the nature of man and his prospects within the ‘human condition.’ In the course of time, a ‘great conversation’ has originated and been ongoing. All thinking men participate in this conversation —many are philosophers, many are scientists, many are writers: the subject of their conversation is Man. During this course, you will participate in this great conversation.”
I ask Ickstadt if she believes, and if she thinks La Jolla High School believes, that core, SAT subjects are more important than non-SAT subjects.
“Oh, oh, oh,” she shakes her head and wags an index finger side to side, “misnomer, mistake. Don’t say that.”
Don’t say what?
“Don’t say non-SAT subjects, because some of the most interesting recent studies show that students who are involved in the performing arts or in the visual arts raise their SAT scores. As far as the mission of the school goes, I would say it is academics. But the ‘curriculum’ — that is not limited to English, math, and science. ‘Curriculum’ is from the time the kid gets off the bus or out of his car until the time he goes home in the afternoon. The idea of travel, the idea of poetry, the arts, the music, all of the things we find enhance our lives, I think we’re instilling in the kids. So are we academic, do we stress academics? Yes, but that doesn’t mean we stress it at the expense of the artistic and cultural endeavors or opportunities.”
Ickstadt believes that La Jolla High School’s chief asset is an atmosphere that is conducive to learning. “The whole environment here,” she says, “is ‘You can make it, you’re going to make it, it’s okay to make it.’ I remember one young man I had at University City (I taught U.S. history there) who came from Barrio Logan. A real neat, real sharp kid. I was after him all of the time. I said, ‘You are a C student without batting an eye. Take your book home, do your homework, get some background so that I can help you go into these issues more in depth. You can make A’s.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Take my book home? Nobody does that. I can’t take my book home. I’d get laughed right out of my neighbor hood.’ That’s a crime. Well, we may have some of that on this campus but we have less. We want to perpetuate the idea that when you come here, you come here to learn, and it’s okay to learn and safe to learn.”
John Chen, 17, is a senior at La Jolla High School. Six feet tall and of stocky build, Chen speaks in a confident, self-assured manner. “Right now,” he tells me, “I’m taking an advanced placement English class and advanced placement economics and a political science class which is taught by a professor from Mesa. I’m also enrolled in a history class at UCSD. I’m captain of the math team and we’ve come in first in the county, top ten in the state; captain of the Academic league, which is a Jeopardy-like competition with five people on each team and you answer questions — we generally are in the top three in the county and we won last year. I’m also captain of the academic decathlon, which is a competition involving ten tests in ten different subject areas from humanities to math and science and also involves life skills such as speeches and interviews. We took first in the county for that, and we’re going to state in the coming month. I’m president of the Faith Club, a Christian club on campus. We work with youth groups in La Jolla trying to create a fun environment for Christians so we don’t feel pressured by outside influences. In my spare time I’m part of a gospel choir. I’m also a semi-professional sound technician with a production company and at my church, and I work as a cashier at Harry’s coffee shop.”
Like Ickstadt, Chen believes that La Jolla High has an atmosphere that’s conducive to learning, an atmosphere he attributes to its teachers. “I think the staff here is probably the best in the county,” he says. “The teachers, if they wanted to, could teach very minimal, basic courses but instead, many of them enjoy the fact that they teach college-level, advanced courses. They enjoy doing that, and they even try to add more programs to the school.”
Though he says drugs are available — “not on campus, but it wouldn’t be a problem [to buy them | after school walking down the street or down one of the alleyways” — Chen feels that someone who wants to avoid them “easily” can. About drinking he says, “There’s not much peer pressure. If you don’t want to drink, you don’t have to drink. If you want to, you can. I have been to parties where there has been alcohol available, and my personal decision is not to drink, and that is completely feasible.”
On sex in the student body Chen says, “Again, like the drug use and the alcohol, it’s available but we have so many outlets that we can put our energy into that we aren’t forced to do that. People talk about it, gossip, but it’s not prevalent to a high degree.”
Can you avoid sex, drugs, and alcohol without being stigmatized?
Chen chuckles, “As long as you’re socially adept in other areas and you have other things to make up for it. Sometimes, if you abstain from these things, you’re considered high and righteous. But as long as you’re willing to condemn those actions for yourself but not for other people, then you’re okay. But if you won’t hang around those other people and put yourself on a mountain, you might be stigmatized. If I go to a party, I’m willing to hang out with those people, I’m just not willing to do that stuff myself.”
Neither is Kawon Lee, an 18-year-old senior with straight black hair parted in the middle. “I’m a really goodie-goodie type of person,” she says with a coy smile. “I don’t do anything that I’m not supposed to do. I guess I’m not in with the real popular crowd and I don’t go to a lot of parties. My friends and I go out to the movies or dinner or to each other’s houses. But we don’t go to the big parties where they drink.”
Does she feel pressure to be like the “popular crowd”?
“The thing is, I think I have a strong individual personality so I don’t care if people think I’m cool. Even if there is pressure to drink, I know it would be bad for me and I’m not going to do it. That goes for everything else, like drugs.”
Chen and Lee agree that La Jolla High’s primary goal is college preparation, but both say that opportunities for cultural enrichment are available through classes and through clubs like the Astronomy Club, Opera Club, French Club, and the Devil's Wine campus literary magazine. “At La Jolla,” Chen says, “they really do prepare you for college. But there are definitely opportunities and teachers who try to extend the lessons you learn here beyond class.”
Why People Move to Poway
- Poway High School
- DISTRICT: Poway Unified
- PERCENTAGE OF GRADUATES ATTENDING COLLEGE (1997) 90%
- NUMBER OF TEACHERS: 150
- NUMBER OF STUDENTS: 3255
- ETHNIC MIX: 79.7% white, 8.3% Hispanic, 5.8% Asian, 3.1% Filipino 2% African-American, 0.6% Native American, 0.5% Pacific Islander
”Surrexit Christus hodie,” sings the madrigal choir in a large classroom at Poway High School. They’re performing the Renaissance Easter motet with beautiful precision and tone. The last alleluia falls silent and conductor Barbara Fletcher choir teacher at Poway High for ten years, asks the singers to critique their performance.
“I think we needed more feeling,’’ says a clean-cut, black-haired tenor
Yeah, adds a more disheveled, heavyset boy sitting next to him, “we sang it, but we didn’t SING it.”
'We need to hit our consonants a little better,’ one of the sopranos offers.
“And improve our facial expression," adds an alto.
Their critiques surprise me for two reasons. First, I’ve sung choral music for years, and I thought they sounded great. Second, and more surprising, is their willingness to offer opinions, with no worry of being mocked or belittled by peers
On the first count, Fletcher agrees with me. “You’re being too hard on yourselves,” she tells her smiling group. “I thought you sounded great.” After she dismisses the class, I mention the second part of mv surprise to her. “I am lucky to get a lot of the really involved kids who are here to learn,” she says. “Kids who are in choir are responsible, they know how to work with a group and cooperate, they know that what they contribute is a part of the whole. Choir teaches a great many life skills that are crucial to the job market. It also gives you self-esteem, and self-esteem with teenagers — I have three of my own — is everything. Self-esteem allows you to say no to your peers and feel good about who you are and what you do. It gives you all the tools to deal with your teenage years.’’
Fletcher believes in and champions the arts in education. From a file in her office, she pulls a folder. It’s as thick as a Bible with studies that support teaching the arts — in particular music — in schools. A College Entrance Examination Board study reports that in 1996, students studying music averaged 538 on the verbal portion of the SAT and 532 on the math, compared to 478 verbal and 490 math for students with no arts course work.
Fletcher, short, black-haired, and exuberant, started the choral program at Poway She is happy to be at a school that believes in more than core academics. "I think it’s an attitude of our administration,” she says, “that kids need many things in addition to their core subjects. The opportunities to educate the whole child are here at this school. I don’t think every child comes here readv to grab those opportunities or ready to learn. But if they have a strong attitude from home that you go to school to learn, when they come here all the things that make them a well-educated child are available. ’
Sheralie Monroe is bound for Brigham Young University next year as a music major. She believes that having cultural as well as academic classes is “absolutely crucial” to good education. “There’s no way that a person who can get a 1600 on an SAT can say that they are prepared for life, that they are a happy person, that they can enjoy living, or that they are well-balanced. A hermit can get a I bOO on an SAT You can teach a baby to memorize facts and spit out what they’re given. It doesn’t mean they are educated.’’
Principal Gerald Leininger agrees. We try to provide a full comprehensive program. We believe strongly in students leaving our program with a well-rounded exposure. Our musk and theater and art programs are a big piece of it.
“What we’re trying to do,” Leininger continues, “is multifaceted. It’s not simply teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. When you talk about history, for example, it’s pretty hard to separate out the study of mankind and his history without looking at art and music and the great stories over time. To better understand a particular period of history, you need to look at the art, you need to look at the music, you need to look at the literature. To just read about times and dates and places and people doesn’t bring the richness of history home. It’s just memorization and regurgitation of facts.”
Leininger, 52, is decked in tan pants and a green polo shirt adorned with a Poway High School logo. A salt-and-pepper mustache accents his tanned face. An educator for 22 years, he has spent the last 5 as Poway’s principal. Asked what kind of student he wants to graduate from Poway High School, he answers, “We hope that our students leave us with the ability to think clearly and critically and logically, the ability to problem solve, to analyze, to work cooperatively with other people as a member of a team, to be good citizens, to make positive contributions to their community If you look at our statistics, about 90 percent of our students go on to higher education, and we have a responsibility to pre pare them for that. But not all of our students have that goal. No matter who the student is, we need to make sure that they can read and write at a high level, communicate verbally and in writing, and be good listeners. That’s what the world is these days. We rely so heavily on the ability to communicate clearly with understanding.”
Along with Torrey Pines and La Jolla, Poway High ranked in the top ten in all four of the following categories tor the 95-’96 school year SAT average, percentage of students who take the SAT, percentage in college prep courses, and percentage receiving college credit through AP exams. Leininger attributes this high Performance to an environment that promotes optimal learning, an environment in which every child can maximize his potential. We need to have an environment that is sate, orderly, and protective of the instructional time that we have with our students. We go through a lot of trouble to make sure that our campus is safe, that students know what the expectations are, that they are treated with dignity, kindness, and respect at all times. I think when you treat human beings with those three things in mind, you’re going to get students who will treat other students that way, and I think it enhances their ability to learn. When they feel safe, when they feel supported, they can learn.”
As part of Poway High’s effort to achieve this environment, the school employs a drug-sniffing dog service that shows up at random times to search the campus for drugs. “They are very, very sensitive,” Leininger says. “We had an assembly when we first brought this company on. They put one little seed of marijuana in a floor plate of the gymnasium prior to the assembly, and the dog was able to find it. The reason we have the dogs and had the assembly is we don’t want to catch these kids. We want to convince them that drugs are unacceptable here so don’t bring them to school. If they do get caught in possession or under the influence of a controlled substance or alcohol, they are transferred to one of the other high schools in the district.”
Leininger says the drug dogs and transfer policy seem to be working at Poway. “If you were to come to our dances, you would see that the kids are arriving there as sober as judges. In fact, the deejay at one of the dances, who does dances all over the county, said when kids come up and make requests, oftentimes you can smell alcohol. But he said at Poway High School that never happens.”
Asked about drugs on campus Sheralie Monroe replies, “I know they are there. If I needed to, I guess I could get access to them. But it’s good because then the people who have them get caught and they’re out of here. Other people say, ‘Oh, we won’t do that.’ ”
Another reason Leininger gives for Poway High School’s success is Poway itself. “We’re in an upward spiral of expectations from the community,” he says. “When people moving into San Diego ask where the good schools are, Poway is usually listed. So we get increasing numbers of families that move here from other parts of the country who are concerned about education and want their children to have the best opportunities. They move into our school and that continues to raise the expectations. I talked to a parent who moved to Poway from the Rancho Santa Fe area for the schools. This may sound bad, but he told me, ‘The only reason to move to Poway is the schools.’ ”
Not the 19th Century
- Coronado High School
- DISTRICT: Coronado
- PERCENTAGE OF GRADUATES ATTENDING COLLEGE (1997): 97% (54% four-year universities)
- NUMBER OF TEACHERS: 58
- NUMBER OF STUDENTS: 866
- ETHNIC MIX: 82% white, 18% nonwhite (chiefly Hispanic)
When I was in high school, not so long ago, the teacher stood at the front of the room, in front of the blackboard or overhead projector screen. The desks stood in rows, facing forward. Students had discussions, but the teacher ran the show.
Not so, the Oxford Academics program at Coronado High School. From an informational pamphlet: “Students get their assignments in six-week chunks and are expected to work mostly independently, asking for help when they need it; many students prefer to ask peers or older students, using teachers as a ‘last resort’ resource. Teachers give short presentations to put assignments in context or to teach a particular skill, lead small-group discussions, and consult with students individually.”
Senior Nicole Mournian lauds this style of learning: “There are some classes that are very organized, that some people need to be in. It all depends on the student; that’s what’s so great about it. If I sat in more structured classes — and I have — I get it done, but I get a lot more done when I have more freedom.”
Another senior, Natasha McCray, is quick to admit the program’s downfalls. “There’s kids who sit around. We used to have these little curtains that separated certain corners of the room, and it was just like these two, ‘pits’ is what they called them. It was just a whole bunch of kids lying in there, like, all the time, a constant slumber. It brought germs and stuff, like, it smelled. It was awful.” Even the pamphlet admits the “potential abuse of freedom.”
The first thing I notice when I visit one of the Oxford classrooms is not the smell but a well-worn couch floating in the middle of the room, unanchored to any wall. The couch is occupied by a supine junior, Josh Trice, who is working on a novel. There are a few tables, but the overall feel is that of a basement rec room, a place where old, comfy furniture ends up. Clumps of students are scattered about. I have to look for the teacher’s desk, since the room has no discernible front. From the pamphlet: “Oxford has a suite of three adjoining classrooms, from which the students are free to choose their preferred workplaces.”
The program’s philosophy: “Oxford Academics is a technology-oriented, student-centered, cross-curricular, core-subject tutorial course of study for high school students of all ages, all ability levels, most of the behavior spectrum, and a wide variety of backgrounds. The program is designed to provide a fluid delivery of an academically rigorous curriculum. In a traditional school setting, students who have passionate interests must choose between pursuing those interests (often the source of their future careers) and being serious about their academics. If they choose to pursue their interests, they lose the broad background which puts information in perspective and gives a person options. If they choose academics, they lose a competitive edge in their field of interest.
“We take students’ interests extremely seriously, since, at present, it is very hard to determine exactly what we should be teaching people who will live their lives in the 21st Century. Our best thinking: provide historical and conceptual frameworks for facts; develop criteria for judging information; support self-esteem and curiosity as prerequisites for learning. Model joy in living the life of the mind.”
It is not surprising to learn that the program was created at Coronado soon after the arrival of Coronado High School principal Dr. Jeff Davis, five years ago. Youngish, smiling, and breezy, he is less principally than most, more like a grad student in a jacket and tie, bantering with students and teachers. Echoing Nicole’s ideas on structure, Davis says, “the school needs to fit the student, as opposed to the student fitting the school. We will do anything possible to accommodate the individual needs of our students, as long as we do not sacrifice the academic integrity of our program. It just makes common sense, from what we know about human nature. We don’t want to cram a square peg into a round hole.”
Davis describes his job’s duties: “To help create the vision, to be the keeper of that vision, to be a facilitator for the teachers, to let them do what they do best — teach.” The vision he helped create, along with “about 100 people, parents, kids, and staff...is twofold: A hard-core, rigorous academic program: math, English, science, social studies.” Then, to get students “prepared to go off into the real world: they need to be able to work collaboratively, they have to have good communication skills, they need to have access to technology, and they need to be analytical, critical thinkers. We call those life skills.”
Along with creating that vision and maintaining excellence where it already existed — among the AP kids and those requiring special education — Davis and his team took aim at students in the academic middle. Students not cruising through the AP program, students asking, “‘What am I doing here? This isn’t real exciting.’ ” Oxford and other alternative programs exist for them, to “help them develop a passion for school, or a passion for something in their life. To bring that intrinsic motivation to them, so they feel good about school.” He says test scores have risen across the board.
This focus on kids in the middle is why Davis, after giving me a tour of the campus (livened by murals but worn) and stopping for a few seconds in a dozen different classes, brings me to a WriteDesign classroom. “I want to show you typical kids,” he says. WriteDesign is another new development, the result of a collaboration between bushy-bearded Doug Kipperman, the technology-minded, “cynical, crusty, reality-check bad cop” and wistful-eyed Melissa McKinstry, the writerly woman Doug calls the “sweet, wonderful, good cop.” “We were asked to come up with our dream class for students...” begins Melissa; “This is our hallucination,” Doug finishes.
In Coronado’s course catalog, WriteDesign is described as “a two- hour course for juniors and seniors that combines one hour of computer graphic design with one hour of writing workshop. The course offers credit for practical arts and English 11 and 12.” Doug suggests I check out the class’s Web site (http://aztiet. net/~ mrdoug/Write-Design.html) for another account of “what we’re about.”
A brief tour of the Write-Design Web site: the cover page reads (caps signify enlarged letters): “Do you have SOMETHING TO SAY? Do you NEED TO EXPRESS yourself? Do you LOVE TO WRITE? We mean REALLY WRITE! Write with your HEART AND SOUL! Do you GET OFF when people read your work? Do you want your work to LOOK AS GOOD AS IT READS? Then WriteDesign is for you!”
Page 2, Philosophy, includes a quotation on writing — “I want to assure you, with all earnestness, that no writing is a waste of time — no creative work where the feelings, the imagination, the intelligence must work. With every sentence you write, you have learned something. It has done you good. It has stretched your understanding” — and a meditation on design — “Design is stimulation, inspiration, challenge, process, pain, thought, exploration, risk, collaboration, insight, patience, frustration, tenacity, effort, skill, communication, reward, life, evolution.”
One page contains poems from Melissa (a.k.a. Mama), another, an essay from Doug, and another, a student gallery, including Ashley Huck’s charming “Ode to TP”: “A quilted cotton snake chasing its long white tail around a brown tube...” ending with, “where would we be if it just upped itself and left?” Also included are the earnest efforts of students discovering adjectives, packing them together to convey the intensity of their experiences. “They write what they feel,” says Doug. “Some of them are still on the 'Roses are red, violets are blue,’ some of them are on the ‘I wanna kill you,’ some of them are on ‘Life sucks,’ some of them are really insightful.”
My first meeting with Doug, who is the only teacher in the school who goes by his first name, since, as one of his students put it, “Doug is Doug,” is in a computer lab. Students are working on, among other things, the annual literary magazine, scanning, typing, playing with fonts and graphics. “The rest of them are working on different projects,” Doug explains. “We really try to allow them as much personal freedom as possible. There’s structure, but not the traditional structure. My personal thing is that, if you’re into whatever, that’s a good thing. That’s the hook I use. I’ll eventually get you where I think I want you to go, or ideally, where we both want you to go.”
“Whatever” includes MUDs, “which I guess by education standards is considered immoral and satanic,” says Doug, enjoying himself. MUD stands for multi-user dimension. It refers to a story created online by multiple writers. The same story is told from different characters’ perspectives and is sometimes influenced as it progresses by interactive feedback. “MUDs are a very viable form of using technology, traditional storytelling, and involving people,” continues Doug. “They call it 'the interactive reader’ as opposed to the passive reader. It’s not a linear piece, like a traditional book. The reader has to get into character, and they have to dialogue with up to 60 people.”
What’s wrong with linear? “You go to a movie, you see video games, all this stuff is competing for attention, and you want sound bites. Life is a series of sound bites. How does some monotone, boring individual compete? Most teachers are one frame per second. TV and movies are 30 frames per second. Video games are 60 to 90 frames a second. So unless you’re on some serious Quaaludes or whatever, you’re out of it, and you’re going to be bored.”
Like Fr. Sanders at St. Augustine, Doug strikes me as a man with a theory of education, so I ask a provocative question. Sound bites aside, what about the idea that the teacher knows something the student doesn’t, and so the student should shut up and listen? “We’re not in the 19th Century,” he fires back. “We’re no longer in the age of Industrial Revolution. We’re in the postmodern era of information. Information changes so rapidly, media changes so rapidly, the context of media changes so rapidly, that if you’re not allowing the students to share with us where they are, and where the trends are going, then we are ultimately not doing a service to our society.
“There’s still structure, there’s still discipline, the difference is that there’s humanity. I hated school. It wasn’t until I went to art school that it seemed real instead of canned — an answer conveniently worked out at the end of every chapter. There are no answers that are conveniently mapped out because we don’t know. That industry doesn’t exist today, yet tomorrow, thousands and millions of people will be employed in that industry.” Like the Oxford pamphlet, Doug has his eye on the future, and what he sees is that he doesn’t know what he sees.
And like Dr. Davis, Doug sees critical thinking as an answer. “Survival skills,” he calls it. “Not just surviving, but surviving with grace and power. I think that’s different from teaching drones, or, as I call them, point-chasers. They get great grades, they have an amazing accumulation of facts, and they are about as human as a meat bag. I want people with some texture, some richness.”
By this time, we’ve returned to the Oxford classroom, which WriteDesign also uses. Doug mentioned discipline; I ask how a teacher maintains respect in such a wide-open environment. Josh Trice, still reclining on the couch, raises his hand, “Can I say something regarding the whole respect thing? As far as teaching goes, like, This is this, this is this, blah, blah, blah,’ you guys do it fine.
“I think it’s good when a teacher can regress to the talking level of the students, you know? When they’re, like, acting like high school students. You’re in teacher mode most of the time, and then when you talk to students, who are, you know, and you’re at that level, and when you’re like that, it gives us an understanding that you understand how we feel and our points of view. It’s only when you see us from that point of view that we understand that you can see it. That’s where you get the respect.”
Melissa answers. “I think there are more positive days, [but even on] bad days we know what we’re doing is important for the kids. There have been some tough times operating that workshop setting. It’s not natural; it’s not what the kids do the rest of the day, most of them. So when they come in and we ask them to set their own goals and take a 15-minute presentation on a particular topic and apply it on their own and get into a response group and give each other feedback.... We model all those things, but there are some days that feel not so successful.”
But Melissa is a teacher who gets personally involved with her students — “you see the students as people, and you get to know their hopes and dreams and wishes and their talents and their weak spots.” She is a teacher who speaks of the bittersweet quality of senior year. Whatever its frustrations, this is her dream class, where she gets to “present techniques and tools and coaching and guidance” to students “who have a real passion for writing and design.”
Descending to the particular, Melissa shows me a sample portfolio, the presentation of which serves as a final exam. “We asked them to include a piece of meta-cognition-self-reflection about their learning. This girl chose to make her own rubric (the checklist used to evaluate the portfolios), which, to me, hit the nail on the head. ‘Not only do I understand what a rubric does, but I’m going to show you what I’ve learned in the format you’re giving me.' ” She reads from the rubric: “I’ve been able to eliminate ‘Be’ verbs and still describe things the way I see them.” “Doug gave me mucho feedback. I condensed a few words and stretched others.”
Melissa picks up another portfolio, illustrated with soft black-and-white photographs. “She always does these graceful reflections. She titles her portfolio ‘Writing in the Moment.’ She talks about what the semester boils down to, which is trying to capture specific snapshots of things in writing and design. She has a reflection where she talks about things she knows she needs to work on: The lack of rhythm and music in my poetry clearly shows that I need to spend more time editing and revising my work. It also means I need to seek more feedback and challenge myself to read my work aloud more often.’
“I can teach a regular English class until I’m blue in the face and hope that I can get a kid to want to revise. But for your student to articulate that for themselves as what they’ve figured out in a semester pretty much makes my day as a teacher.”
When the students analyze books, they analyze the way they are written. When they read 1984, they discuss the power of language. They compare The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms, books by “male authors who wrote at the same time in history,” as to characterization, setting, and theme. “I think they have a greater understanding of some of these novels than what I’ve seen come out of a five-paragraph essay at the end of a novel study in a traditional English class,” she says, beaming.
Dr. Davis has other points of pride. The gymnasium is new, huge, and gorgeous. And in April and May of each year, the Coronado School of the Arts, a school within a school, holds auditions for Classical and Contemporary Dance, Instrumental Music, Musical Theater and Drama, Technical Theater, and Visual Arts. Once admitted, some students spend from 12:30 to 5:00 p.m. in arts classes.
I wander about for a while. Dancers prepare for the musical Pippin on a big wooden stage, fronted by mirrors, in the cafeteria. Before they get down to practice, they stand around; now and then, one bursts into motion like a startled horse, leaping, twisting, skittering. The buzzing drama classroom, equipped with a miniature stage, leads into the music room, where a teacher lectures a small group on how to properly acknowledge applause. The actual theater is occupied by techies, considering set paintings and moving equipment. In the woodshop, someone is making a heavy but elegant chair, someone else, a six-drawer dresser.
My favorite stop is the art studio, where students sit facing mirrors and work on self-portraits. Several of them, and many of the paintings hanging on and leaning against the walls, show surprising depth and accomplishment. “I would challenge you to find a more powerful arts program,” says Davis
College on the Mind
3710 Del Mar Heights Road, Carmel Valley
- Torrey Pines High School
- DISTRICT: San Dieguito
- PERCENTAGE OF GRADUATES ATTENDING COLLEGE (1997): 97% (70% four-year universities)
- NUMBER OF TEACHERS: 155
- NUMBER OF STUDENTS: 2170
- ETHNIC MIX: 81.5% white. 9.1% Asian, 8% Hispanic, 0.8% African-American, 0.6% Native American/ Pacific Islander/ other
“This school, it’s not like teaching in a school. It’s like teaching in a country club. Although I have nothing to compare it to, you understand, you can’t get a better education—and I’m including the private schools around here—than you can at Torrey Pines.”—Mrs. Gail Zides, AP and “regular” English teacher.
There is a tension on the campus of Torrey Pines High School between the gentle slopes of green lawns and the ponderous mass of the concrete and wood rectangles that rest upon them. The concrete is corrugated, the wood, which connects one concrete block to another, milk chocolate brown. The rectangles are long and low in most places, rising up for the gymnasium and lecture hall. For ornament, long wooden ridges run before and behind the edges of the rectangles.
The windows — more long, narrow rectangles set in from the concrete and wood — are tinted. Glass ridges, sloped on one side and straight on the other, like the dorsal fin of a shark, rise from the roof of the library. The bleachers, built into the side of a hill beside the enormous playing field, resemble the side of an Aztec pyramid. The campus is modem, all of a piece, variations on a theme. Students from other schools think it looks like a college campus.
College is certainly on the school’s collective mind. ‘You’ll get advice everywhere,” says Kim Sandler, a 17-year-old senior from Del Mar. “Like, you should go to college here. You should go to undergrad here so that you can go to graduate school here. Everyone’s so eager to give you advice about your life and stuff, because they think they have it figured out. ’ To look at the scores and percentiles, they seem to be on to something.
Returning, then, to the initial quotation. What constitutes a “better education”? What constitutes a good education? The definitions at Torrey Pines run the gamut as they are expressed by principal, teacher and student. Principal Marie Grey, slim, poised, friendly without being familiar, gives an account general enough to include almost everyone and everything, then specifies it with regard to a good education’s preparatory qualities: “ I think it differs from child to child. It’s very individualized. I think it’s broad-based. I think a good education is a variety of experiences, is going to meet the students’ needs in a variety of ways. I think sometimes kids get narrowed in a focus. I like it when they will try a lot of different things.”
Still, “we are a college prep school. Our community demands that from us. That is our main focus. But all our kids are going to have jobs. We’ve been listening to CEOs from Qualcomm, Intuit, Scripps Clinic, and they’re telling us that kids need to know how to communicate. We had a guy tell us, ‘If a kid wants to be an engineer tell them to take every English class they possibly can — take speech, take creative writing, learn as much about how to communicate as you possibly can.’
“We’re preparing students for life, and oftentimes, we’re preparing them for things that haven’t been invented yet, that we don’t even know about yet,’’ says Grey, echoing Doug at Coronado. “So, it’s real important that we give them broad skills to handle a variety of situations.” The references to English for the sake of engineering and uninvented things give “broad skills” a practical, even technical, connotation since technology is what is uninvented.
Gail Zides, a straightforward woman of infectious enthusiasm who was “a wife and mom” until she started teaching 11 years ago, also favors a general, “well-rounded” education, but with a more classical slant: “The best way I can explain it is, a substitute that I had to have. He did not have a credential in English; they called him at the last minute. He came in to teach my APs. I faxed him lesson plans, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God....’ He was fabulous. He read every poem, he discussed them with the class, he was right on. I had not told him a thing — I have no keys for anything in here.
“That s well-rounded. A Renaissance man. That’s what an education should be; teach the kids to think, so they can tackle whatever they come across. I don’t want narrow educations for my kids. Where’s the humanity then?”
On the subject of humanity and broad-based educations, where are the humanities at Torrey Pines? Where are the arts? Eighteen-year old senior Evan Wilder, a reserved, careful speaker, tells me that the music program was cut a couple of years ago and that it is not too difficult for students in the Early Admissions Honors (EAH) program to get their practical arts requirement waived. “There are more classes here that are just strictly academic, college oriented, that you can fill your four years with. I didn’t want to take classes like cooking and stuff. Not to say that that’s a bad class, but with what I’m interested in, it would be sort of a waste of my time.” Kim also got her arts requirement waived, “because of journalism. A lot of my friends haven’t taken art classes either. It’s so hard to fit into your schedule.”
Principal Grey responds. “We have a very strong visual arts program. Our theater program is very strong. I think our Honors kids see that as a real nice complement to Honors English — a humanities kind of approach. We’re hoping to get music back in, not next year, but the year after. We see that as real important, but...”
Kim’s definition of a good education appeals to the division of real life vs. academia. “One that’s balanced between learning about things in the real world that are going to be relevant to your life and learning about things that are what people call ‘book smarts.’ I’ll find myself focused so much on literature or whatever that I’m missing reading the newspaper.”
But it is Evan’s definition that makes explicit the practicality Principal Grey hinted at, contra her belief in “a variety of experiences.” “This may seem weird,” Evan says, “because I think a lot of people want well-rounded-ness. But if you just take one or two things, and develop your skills in one area that you’re good at, I think that really makes a good high school education. I’ve had a couple of opportunities to skip math classes, so I’m ending up at a level which is above other students in my grade. That’s something that sets me apart; it’s my one area of expertise. Kids aren’t known amongst each other, or the colleges, for well-roundedness. If you’re good at one thing that is truly extraordinary, that’s really enough, I think.” Extraordinary, better than average, just plain better. “You can’t get a better education. Excellence has become part of the culture at Torrey Pines,” says Principal Grey. “I think early on, people decided that they wanted the best. There is a whole culture of high expectations and excellence * in everything we do. I think we tend to have students whose parents understand education; they’re educated themselves. Our special-education students come to us wanting to get into a four-year university.”
High expectations can mean high pressure. As I said, college is on the school’s mind. Kim was the only student from any school I visited who mentioned competition among the students, or students “freaking out, like, totally freaking out” because “there’s so much worrying about college.”
And Evan and Kim were the only students who alluded to studies as a deterrent to sex. When I ask what percentage of kids are sexually active, Evan answers, “Lower than most schools. I’d say 40 percent. The atmosphere is really, it’s not competitive, but when you’re around a bunch of students who are very interested in what they are doing for their futures, they sort of build on each other. So, like, I want to say, just, a competitive environment keeps students motivated and looking ahead.”
“This is totally a generalization,” adds Kim, “but between Honors and the [non-Honors, Honors) party less and study more. That definitely includes sex. People here are really focused on college.” On the other hand, both Evan and Kim thought drinking was a problem. “I think that’s the one area Torrey Pines fails in,” says Evan.
Kim expands. “I think my eyes were opened freshman year. People think that when you go here, you’ve got this, like, perfect life made out for you, and, you know, you park your car in the parking lot and you’ve got your Beemer, and, you know, you can just pay for things, and you can buy your way into college. And I’m sure this is one of the reasons why people anywhere drink, but.. .to get away from that. To get away from that pressure of school, but mostly because they don’t want to be perfect little rich students. Plus, they can afford it. I think there’s a lot of drinking at our school.”
The February 20 edition of the Falconer, Torrey Pines’ impressive-looking student newspaper, featured an editorial criticizing athletes for making a mocker}' of the California Interscholastic Federation Code of Ethics through the use of drugs and ^ alcohol, and a four-page section on drunk driving, capped off by the story of a Jeep carrying several Torrey Fines students that slid down an embankment behind the school. Kim and some fellow student journalists followed a helicopter to the scene. “Supposedly, the facts are unclear, but they were drunk, and there was pot in the car. That really opened my eyes, because I think a lot of people do stuff like that. Honors included. Some of the people that were at the journalism get-together that night said, ‘Oh, my God, that could have been me.’ ”
Again, Grey responds. “I think if people say they don’t have those things on their campuses, they’re not being honest with you. Anything you’re going to find out there in society, you’re going to find on a high school campus. I have talked to kids who say, ‘In four years. I’ve never seen a drug,’ and I know others deal with it on a daily basis. We’re real strong on the intervention part of it, but not as strong on prevention. We’ve instituted some community prevention programs. I think the whole concept of helping kids to build resiliency and learn refusal skills and just give them the empowerment to make good decisions about drugs and alcohol and sex and a variety of other things.”
Rounding out the discussion on campus culture, Evan and Kim agree that there is less cliquishness than there was when they arrived. Evan recalls fights between surfers and jocks, “but that’s definitely mellowed down.” Along with surfers and jocks, Kim lists “preppy—that’s kind of the more popular group, alternative, like, Gothic. Then there’s the smart people. They’re kind of different. Freshman year, it was like nerds, almost.’’ Now, Evan refers to them as “intellectuals,” a class he and Kim fit into. They are, in Principal Grey's words, “Honors kids.”
Evan is taking AF French Lit, AP European History, AP English 12, AP Physics, and, through the F.AH program at UCSD, Probability 180A and Number Theory 104 A, B, and C. He competes in five events at Science Olympiad — Roads Scholar, Cell Biology, Redesigner Genes, Can’t Judge a Powder, and Bottle Rocket. He is also on the varsity Academic Team. Kim is taking AP Government, AP Physics, AP English 12, AP Calculus B and C, and she is also in Advanced Journalism (she is the Falconers assistant editor/sports editor). She played soccer for three years, and she runs cross-country and track.
“More than one-half of TPHS students are in the Honors program,” begins a Falconer op-ed piece arguing for stricter Honors admission requirements. “The article argues that misplaced students are dead weight and doomed to frustration and failure. But according to Kim, the alternative may not be satisfactory either. “My mom works here, so I get all kinds of different sources telling me stuff, hut one of the things the critics say is that there’s so much emphasis placed on Honors classes here, the regular students aren’t given as much attention and aren’t praised as much and really get a lot lower level of education.” She can’t attest to that, since “almost all the people I hangout with are in the Honors program.” An academic clique?
Grey contends that this is more of a perception than a reality, noting that the 97 percent of students who go to college includes everybody, not just Honors kids, and that the parent organization has developed a recognition program called the Golden Falcon, given to kids who “come to class every day, who come prepared, ready to learn every single day.”
According to Mrs. Zides, this sort of student is easier to find these days. “When I first came in ’86, the kids were really determined to do well. Then, after a couple of years, it started to go down, across the board — AP classes, everything. The seriousness wasn’t there. I have no explanation. This year, the students really care, and they want to learn. I just see a more conservative swing now. What got to a majority of them (was the idea that) ‘I am not going to be able to get a decent job unless I get an education.’ ”
Despite the slide, Torrey Pines won a National Blue Ribbon Schools Award in ’93 and is up for another this year. And in 1995, 87 students passed the AP English language Exam, and 95 passed the AP English Literature Exam. Zides credits her success in motivating to keeping it “fun but challenging — you let them get bored, they’re gonna say, ‘What am I doing here?’ ” In discipline, to making a contract with students and parents. “I get on the phone and call their parents. All you have to do is call a few and the word gets out.” And in academics, to running a demanding and structured program. “I realize that there are some people who don’t like structure, but they have to be able to get into the mode of being able to adapt to anything. And there are other kids who do horribly in unstructured situations.”
Why does she think this is the best education in San Diego? “I don’t think we have a lot of the restrictions that private schools have, about what they can teach. One of the books everyone must read here in the ninth grade is Lord of the Flies. When we teach it, and I’ve taught every grade, we get into the idea of survival of the fittest and the darkness within man. Students that I have had who transferred in from other schools, little private schools, they read Lord of the Flies, and that was never discussed. It’s often taught to ninth graders as an adventure story. I just think they get the best well-rounded education at Torrey Pines.”
People Here Are College Prep
6501 Linda Vista Road, Linda Vista
- Francis Parker School
- DISTRICT: Private
After initially agreeing to be profiled in this story, Francis Parker School decided against it. But given the school’s lofty average SAT scores and good reputation, we thought it warranted a look, albeit an unofficial look.
I talked to sophomores Ellice Kuebler, 16, and Leisl Schmidt and Sarah Manly, both 15, as they sat on a wall at the 7-Eleven across the street from Parker’s Linda Vista campus eating Tangy Taffy and drinking 7UP.
Tell me about the social atmosphere at Parker.
Kuebler: It is very cliquish. There are a lot of opinions within the student body, and everybody takes everything personally. It’s that type of school because with a rich atmosphere, you act like you’re rich kids, like snobs.
Schmidt: It’s just because it’s so small — a lot of these people, they’re so protected, and this school is all they have.
Manly: Everything gets around and everyone knows everything. They know if you’re grounded...
Kuebler: They know if you got in a fight with your parents last night, they know what kind of car you’re getting for your birthday, anything.
Is all of the talking friendly?
Kuebler: Not always. You’ll have trash talked about you a lot.
Schmidt: It’s just kind of two-faced. Everybody is pretty nice to each other, but behind their backs they talk about each other.
Kuebler: It’s just pathetic how you think you have true friends but they aren’t really. You’ll find out who your true friends are because it’s such a small school.
Manly: But you’ll find that about any small school, not just ours.
Kuebler: I’m sure Bishop’s and La Jolla Country Day are the same way.
Is there any kind of drug or alcohol culture on campus?
Kuebler: Like every other school, there’s a drug group, and there are your main alcoholics, like in the senior class. But you’ll never find it on campus.
Schmidt: Everybody who does it keeps it out of school, because if you do it in school then you get kicked out.
Is Parker considered a party school?
Schmidt: No. I go to other school’s parties.
Kuebler: People here are college prep, obviously. They are looking to go to college. So that’s what they do, they study.
Is the school trying to provide a well-rounded education, or is college preparation the thrust?
Kuebler: It’s “You’re going to be going to college in three years, so look for your colleges in ninth grade and figure out what you want,” and you’re thinking, “Wait a second, I want to pass ninth grade.” We’re taking college tests now, to help you decide what college you want to go to and what you want to major in. That’s what is on their mind, college.
Do you have cultural outlets like music or art?
Kuebler: We have art and stuff, but it’s not one of our main things. There’s also a pep band but it’s not anything big.
Manly: Sports are a big thing at our school. They really encourage you to get into sports.
Schmidt: Right, it’s more like sports and academics. Those are the two main things.
Is it cool to be smart at Francis Parker?
Kuebler: Yes, you fit in very well. If you’re smart and you get good grades you fit in very well with the people. But if you don’t, you’re kind of looked down on by the teachers.
Schmidt: Yeah, and everyone knows you’re not smart.
Manly: Even the teachers are gossips.
How would you rate your teachers?
Schmidt: I think they are good teachers. I think they are definitely focused on teaching and they want to help you if you are getting bad grades.
Is there a feeling of entitlement at Francis Parker?
Manly: Yes, definitely.
Kuebler: It’s like, if you go to Parker, people know it. If they ask you what school you go to and you answer, “Parker,” they say, “Oh, that’s the good school.”
Schmidt: I’m actually kind of embarrassed to say I go to Parker, because it gives you a name.
Only So Many People
- Julian High School
- DISTRICT: Julian
- PERCENTAGE OF GRADUATES ATTENDING COLLEGE (1997): 80% (60% four-year universities)
- NUMBER OF TEACHERS: 14
- NUMBER OF STUDENTS: 232
- ETHNIC MIX: 85.6% white, 9.4% Hispanic, 3.8% Native American, 0.8% African-American, 0.4% Pacific Islander
Fr. Sanders at St. Augustine stressed giving kids “a sense of belonging.” According to district supervisor Jim Zoll, that’s all but unavoidable at Julian High School. “There’s constant support, whether it’s from the community as a whole, from the parents, or from the school. [As a parent], you’ve got to be involved. There’s the district advisory committee, the categorical program advisory committee, the ROP advisory committee. Part of the monies you get require you to have advisory committees. There’s only so many people in Julian, and everybody’s got to serve on a committee.” He estimates that 90 percent of sports coaches are walk-ons.
Because of size and what board president Teri Skinner calls the “dollar constraint,” the drama program works in conjunction with the Julian Junior Theater, which includes preschool through adulthood. “You have the older kids working with the younger kids working with adults,” comments Zoll. “It kind of overlaps, which is really nice.”
A volunteer is pursuing a half-million-dollar 21st Century Grant to help out with Extended Learning Programs (ELP), which would run after school “either from a remedial or an enrichment perspective. [They] would enhance our art program, our theater program, our auto shop, our metal shop, our woodworking, our interscholastic sports, and academic programs.” Like the theater, these ELPs accept students from preschool through adult. “It continues to bring the community back in, so you see that learning is a lifelong process, that it’s actually fun to learn.”
The community is brought in, the students go out into the community. “We have a community service club. We have a banjo/fiddle contest through the Lions Club, and the kids help out there. They either park cars or cook or direct people. We have a 10K run; the kids run that. It raises anywhere from 10 to 15 thousand dollars for our athletic and extracurricular programs. At graduation, we award anywhere between 25 to 30 thousand dollars in scholarships from the community.” Many kids also have jobs, help at the elementary school as aides or tutors, and build things for the school and the community in the wood and metal shops — bookshelves, podiums, sheds, trailers.
Even Zoll’s explanation for students’ academic success appeals to Julian’s smallness and intimacy. “One, we have small class sizes, about 20 students. Two, you can’t hide here. We know every one of our kids by name; we know what their ability is. You can’t turn in crummy work, because we know what your capability is. You cannot not turn in work or not show up, because we know where you live.”
Zoll, a big-smile, big-shoulder, strong-handshake guy, gives me a tour of the campus. We are far from Torrey Pines — the buildings don’t quite go together, as if the campus had risen slowly, over decades—a building here, another there, as needed. Some WPA masonry still remains. An elementary building has been converted, the auditorium bisected into two classrooms. The painted concrete in the hallways is clean and cold. The bathroom is immaculate. The wood/metal shop is a point of pride.
In one of the classrooms — a warm, wood-floored, wood-cabineted science lab — Mr. Sick is finishing up a class. He is a man who exudes health and fitness, who makes you feel sedentary just talking to him. He does not look like he has been teaching for 30 years, but he has — chemistry, physics, and biology. Zoll says that the challenge any institution faces is change, and while change can be slow and lumbering in mammoth institutions, very small ones provide their own difficulties. Sick seems like a good man to ask about how Julian has managed.
“When I started out teaching,” he begins, “I was a sage on a stage — most teachers were, lecturing was most important; the teacher was the center of the classroom. Now it’s turned 180 degrees, to student-oriented. Very little lecture anymore. I set up labs, I’m their resource person. I’ll be their motivator, but the student is the main focus of the classroom.” To an extent, the textbook becomes the first teacher, and it teaches at home. “They’re doing two things here, labs and tests. These textbooks are set up so that they should be able to read it carefully and understand the material. Again, I’m their resource person.
“When I first started out, most of my emphasis was on memorization. Now it’s emphasis on reading skills, outlining skills. The tests are open-note tests. They’re difficult exams, but I’m not expecting them to memorize stuff. If they really understand it, they’re going to be able to answer difficult critical questions.”
At a student’s request, he changed his method of discipline. “[He said], ‘Mr. Sick, you don’t have to yell at me across the room. That just makes me madder.’ ” He demonstrates his new tactic, putting a heavy arm around me and leaning forward so that his forehead almost touches mine. His voice drops in volume and pitch. “It usually never happens again. They didn’t want me to get in their face like that.”
Sick’s account of a good education has not changed. “First and foremost, they need to have a work ethic. They need to be able to take pride in their work. An employer can do the rest.” Also, “we’re in a computer age, or whatever, (but] you have to be able to read and write and have the fundamentals of mathematics. Reading is still the foundation, I think, for everything.” His emphasis on a work ethic is characteristic. After “a love for the kids” and patience, he lists “a tremendous work ethic” as the hallmark of a good teacher. He also echoes Zoll, who says, “We want them to look out at their horizons. There’s nothing out there that’s blocking them, as long as they work hard and are self-disciplined, they’ll be successful.”
And the kids? “I think they’re better critical thinkers. They’re definitely smarter. My wife showed me in the paper the other day how the education system is doing so poorly, but that’s not what I see. I think they’re better readers, better problem solvers.” But despite his more civil discipline, they’re “ruder. They’re more arrogant. They don’t respect their elders; they don’t care if you’re older.”
I get nine of those kids seated around a table. Junior Darcy and senior Tara dominate the discussion; despite my efforts, the four boys are all but silent.
What's a good education?
Darcy (speaking as if she’s reading off a page): “Something that prepares you for the real world, and also further education. Something that instills you with values you can use throughout your life, such as self-esteem, sense of yourself, direction, ambition, organization, goal-setting. Also, a good education will include really good teachers, teachers who know the material, who know how to connect with the students on an individual basis, a positive learning environment where you feel comfortable expressing your views and opinions without being subjected to judgment.”
What's a good teacher?
Tara (talking fast, with a frustrated tone): “Someone that’s not 90 years old and still likes to teach, who is not just here for the paycheck. Young and vivacious, makes their class exciting, isn’t all boring and monotone. I just think it needs to be more interactive, not so much a lecture type of thing.”
What's discipline like?
Tara: “The teachers that have been here forever, they’re too set in their ways. Times change, you can’t have the exact same rules. My brother went to this high school, and I just remember the way they were disciplined. I mean, we change as kids. We don’t think the same as everyone does. We act out differently. We express ourselves differently than people even five years ago. Mr. Sick, for example, is a teacher that’s been here for a really long time. My brother’s class got treated the same way that he treats our class, even though he’s five years older than I am. We’re way different than that.”
When I press for a specific difference, however, I get nothing. So I ask what Mr. Sick does the same that he should do differently, and Darcy tells me -something he does do differently— open-note tests that don’t force memorization.
How does a teacher get your respect?
Tara: “Treats us like human beings.”
Darcy: “I think they can joke with the kids, but then they can be, like, ‘Okay, let’s get back on track.’ They have this control, and they follow through.” I notice that Darcy refers to “the kids” and not “us.”
Tara: “It’s like they try to relate to us more, instead of being the authoritative figure so much—‘I’m the teacher, you’re the student, you’ll do as I say.’ They try to work with you.”
Describe the cliques.
Darcy (looking at Melissa, who is dressed in plaid flannel): “Melissa’s group, they’re kind of the Goth group, they’re more like very unique and kind of... How do you describe yourself, Melissa?”
Melissa (deadpan): “They don’t care about how anybody else feels toward them. They’re trying to be original.”
Cassandra (dressed mod, speaking up): “There may be groups, but everybody mixes.”
Amy (approving): “There’s an intermingling, but there’s definitely types, sort of...”
Melissa (interrupting): “I don’t see any intermingling at all. To me, ever since last year, there’s this group, there’s this group, and this group. Sometimes they’ll talk, but sometimes, they’ll just, like, ‘You’re not in this group, don’t talk to us.’ That’s how I see it. You guys have known each other longer. That’s probably why.”
Darcy (explaining): “The unique thing here is that most of us have been together since kindergarten. I’ve known Mary since second grade. Even though once you’re in high school, you do sort of divide into groups, you don’t forget all the memories you’ve had throughout the years.”
Darcy guesses that 75 percent of kids drink, many because there’s nothing to do up here, which she regards as “a pretty sad commentary” on their lives. She and the others bemoan the lack of a darkroom and a peer counseling program, the cutbacks to art and music and chorus and agriculture programs, and the limited sports.
Before she leaves, Tara tells me it’s not that bad. Others mention that improvements are planned. When I ask what changes they would make, Darcy responds, “A stronger ASB, with a president that said, ‘We’re gonna have an activity every week, and we’re gonna have the best homecoming, and everything’s gonna be funded. If we don’t have the money, we’re gonna raise that money.’ ” The abstract critic talking administratorspeak has become the student pining for more school spirit.
Garrison Keillor, chronicler of smalltown America, once spoke of people leaving Lake Wobegon “to realize themselves as finer people than they were allowed to be at home.” The familiarity Zoll spoke of as an advantage has its downside. Tara and Cassandra complain that the teachers and students know each other too well due to prolonged exposure. Tara feels trapped in a silent stalemate, Cassandra says “they use it against you.”
But according to Zoll, the familiarity, the community involvement, is on their side. “When they graduate from here,” says Zoll, “we want our kids to have choices. That’s the most important thing. If they want to go to Harvard or to Stanford, or to any of the UC systems, they have been well educated and can make the choice to do so. If they want to go into the military, they can do that. If they want to just go to work, they can do that too.”
Something for Every Kid on Campus
9550 Carmel Mountain Road, Rancho Penasquitos
- Mount Carmel High School
- DISTRICT: Poway Unified
- PERCENTAGE OF GRADUATES ATTENDING COLLEGE (1997): 45% four-year, 45% two-year
- NUMBER OF TEACHERS: 138
- NUMBER OF STUDENTS: 3200
- ETHNIC MIX: 59% white, 15% Filipino, 12% Asian, 7% Hispanic, 3% African-American, 3% Middle Eastern, 1% Native American/Pacific Islander/other
“It’s an outstanding school, I think,” says Mount Carmel photography teacher Bob Bjorkquist. “I’m a 20-year teacher here, so I’ve seen considerable changes and growth. Not just growth in the number of kids, but academically, athletically, and culturally. This school has a full, comprehensive, outstanding program in the arts. I look at our programs, for example, in drama, band, chorus, photography, which I teach, our regular art classes, our animation classes, our computer graphics, and I see dedicated teachers and, from the students’ standpoint, lots of enthusiasm for learning. They are pretty disciplined and they work hard in general.”
Tall and thin, with blond hair and mustache starting to show a little gray, 48-year-old Bjorkquist speaks in an open, enthusiastic manner, often shifting in his chair and gesturing for emphasis. Having spent 12 of his 20 years teaching chemistry at Mount Carmel before founding and devoting himself entirely to the photography program, he has taught both core academic and cultural/artistic sides of education. He sees the latter as an essential, not an extra, component of education. A complement to core academics. He says, “Students need discipline and organizational skills to create a visual image and perfect its technical quality. Being disciplined, ordered, and self-motivated are skills that will be taught, or at least emphasized, in art classes. They are exactly what you need for an academic class.”
Does the school share that attitude, or is there antagonism between the cultural and academic?
Bjorkquist pauses and stares at the ceiling. “Sometimes there is. We’re an elective. To graduate, students need to take one semester of a fine art. In eight semesters, they only have to take one. Academics are stressed in the community. Parents stress them a lot. We have advanced placement academic classes. These may be small but we have to offer them because it’s necessary in a competitive, comprehensive high school. So who gets put on the back burner? The electives do. That’s where I see some adversarial feelings. Here’s an example of where I have some difficulty with that: if I have three levels of kids that want to take photography, I have to have them all in the same class because it’s hard to create a single class of advanced students when there are other kinds of classes. That’s where we butt heads once in a while.
“I should say,” he adds, “that we get put on the back burner in the budget crunch as well as the time crunch.”
Asked if students’ eagerness to learn has changed over the years, Bjorkquist shakes his head. “As a teacher, I haven’t lost my enthusiasm. I think that has a lot to do with it. If you lose your enthusiasm as a teacher, especially after 15 or 20 years, it’s hard to get kids to feel enthusiastic. I’m enthusiastic for what I like. I enjoy teaching photography. I believe if you’re a role model, the kids are eager to learn. If I look, generally speaking, at kids now and kids 15 years ago there’s no difference. As for their talent, I think that has increased. What validates my program is the assessment of their work. We participate in exhibitions and we do very well. That’s not just my class, it’s other art classes as well. I hear people say that kids are tougher now and that kids don’t want to learn. I can’t honestly say that that is true.”
One of those kids is Sedona Johnson. An 18-year-old senior with shoulder-length blond hair and eyes that squint almost shut when she smiles. Describing her school, she says, “The academic atmosphere is really good. I don’t think anything needs changing.”
But Johnson, who plays in the school band and orchestra, complains that her band commitments cut into her academic efforts. “I’ve noticed that I need to take summer school every year in order to graduate. Band takes up two periods of the first semester of every year for marching. Then the second semester is given for extra activities. But during that semester you can only take a half-year course. I couldn’t take a math or science or anything I needed for graduation. A couple of years I missed summer school because of family vacations, so I had to take night school.” Though she describes cultural, noncore classes and activities as “necessary,” she says her band involvement makes it difficult for her to take them. “My life is band,” the clarinetist says. “I have a lot of activities with band. We have concerts all of the time. I’ve also got a musical going on and I play in the orchestra pit. So I don’t do anything as far as clubs and other art classes go. I’ve felt like I couldn’t take them because of the band. I’ve wanted to expand my horizons and take lots of classes — I’ve wanted to take animation for a really long time—but because of band I couldn’t.”
When not practicing for the band, Johnson studies her other subjects: civics, chemistry, statistics, British literature, and a music theory class called Harmony. Asked to rate the teachers at Mount Carmel, she replies, “There are some really good teachers here. But I just had a semester with a teacher who I feel didn’t have the correct personality and character traits to be a teacher. He would pressure the students to get things done, and in the meantime we’d be asking questions about it and he wouldn’t know the answers. He wouldn’t explain anything until test time came, and after that he’d continue to tell us that we didn’t know anything. I dropped that class and now I’m in Harmony.”
Katie Horspool, 17, is another Mount Carmel senior. Her brown hair hangs straight from a part down the middle of her head. She describes her school as “really well rounded. There are lots of things that it does well and there’s a big variety of things to do. There are lots of clubs and lots of things to get involved in. If you’re not good at sports you can try theater. If you’re not good at theater you can sing, if you don’t like to sing you can join a club. It’s a great school in that way. I think that’s its strongest point.’’
On the social atmosphere of Mount Carmel High, Horspool comments, “I’ve always felt pretty well accepted. I moved here from Maryland when I was a junior, and it was really easy to adjust. It can be very cliquish, but it’s not like if you're not part of a clique you can’t get into it. It’s not like they are hostile. It’s just natural separation.” Hors pool chooses not to drink, do drugs or be sexually active and says she feds no pressure toward those things from the Mount Carmel students who do. “There are only a few people that I’ve met that have been really vocally critical of me because of it," she says. “I have a strong circle of friends and people see us as a group and they recognize that that’s our morals. We like each other and we get along fine. But if they are going to go do those things, they know not to ask us. But it’s not like I’m left alone for not taking part.”
Like its district mate Poway High School, Mount Carmel has an automatic transfer policy for drug possession on campus and employs drug-sniffing dogs. Despite this, Horspool says she knows of drug use in the student body and says, “I’ve heard of people using drugs, I don’t know about on campus but I know that there are people that sell it. In the locker room the other day, someone was trying to buy drugs from somebody else. It was the first thing like that that I’ve ever witnessed firsthand.”
Despite that experience, Horspool believes Mount Carmel “is a good atmosphere for learning, definitely. You can always get involved with the wrong group of people that will distract you from learning. But if you put yourself in the right position, you can avoid stuff that you know is stupid.”
Scott Fisher, Mount Carmel’s principal, echoes that thought. “I believe kids here can avoid drugs if they want to. A lot just depends on their personal strength and who their friends are and how strong their home life is. Are we devoid of that kind of thing? No, but we make a real effort to combat it, to keep it off our campus, and to try to influence kids to keep it out of their lives off campus as well.”
An educator for 22 years, Fisher, 45, has been principal at Mount Carmel for 9 years. Previously, he taught history at Poway High School and a Catholic school in Houston. Wearing an argyle sweater vest and a bow tie, he is at once friendly and frank. “I would hope,” he says, munching on a brown-bag lunch, “that a student that graduated from our school had a broad education and was well grounded in areas that were really of interest to that student and was well prepared with communication skills: reading, writing, and speaking. Those, to me, would be most important. I would hope they had the ability to think, process, and apply learning. Finally, I would hope we had an impact on their ethics and personal qualities.”
Comparing core academics with cultural, artistic courses, Fisher says, “I would personally see us place a greater focus on the core courses, as you call them; I think those are critical. The skill courses are so important to kids. But the other classes to me are very important as well. I see all of them being essential, hut not all of them being essential for everybody. I think much of our job is to pique the students’ interest, is to motivate them, is to get them excited about learning, and hope that they go somewhere after they are out of here. If we give them an average education all the way through and they leave here with kind of a blah attitude about wanting to do anything more, we haven’t accomplished our task. If we’ve not done as well in certain content areas but we’ve really excited them in others and they go out of here ready to learn and ready to go to school, to the military, or to work, then I think we’ve accomplished our task.”
Fisher believes in extracurricular activities. He says they give students “pride that comes from being a part of an organization,” and they teach team work. “My philosophy is to have as many athletic teams on campus as possible, to have as many extracurricular teams on campus as possible. I like to have a freshman team, a JV team, a varsity team, boys’ and girls’, as many teams as we can have and as many sports as we can have because every one of those teams provides an activity for kids to be involved with. Most kids don’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘Boy, I can’t wait to get to school and take those six classes and nothing else.’ So I think if they have that team to go to or that activity to go to, it’s exciting for them. Beyond the athletics, we have any number of extracurricular teams: academic teams, a competitive business team, a science team, a speech and debate team. We have cheerleading and a couple of programs like that. We also have our visual and performing arts program. We have band, which, between the musicians and the flag girls, has 340 kids who participate, over 10 percent of our student body. We have a choral music program of 150 kids. We have a drama program that has to turn more than 100 kids away who try out for the play. We have an orchestra, which is about 45 kids. We try to keep as many kids involved in those programs as possible. If I could find something for every kid on campus to be connected with outside of class, I’d love to have that. So, financially, I do whatever I can to support that. I will pump money into having more teams because it’s another connection for some kid.”