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School of Dreams: Making the Grade at a Top American High School

The pressure to succeed in our nation's most competitive public high schools is often crushing. Striving to understand this insular world Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Edward Humes spent a year at California's Whitney High, a school so renowned that parents move across town--and across the world--hoping to enroll their children. That's because schools like Whitney deliver everything parents want: love of learning, a sense of mission, and SAT scores that pave the way to elite universities. Attending such a school, of course, carries its own toll: High-achieving, pressured kids survive on espresso and four hours' sleep a night, falling into despair if they get a B.

The students are programmed for success because many of the parents have moved from across the world so their children can attend Whitney. Humes writes: "Thousands of Korean and Chinese immigrants have chosen Cerritos over other communities in the United States because of Whitney's reputation. Several real estate agencies in town have focused their businesses — and made their fortunes — courting future immigrants by placing advertisements in South Korean newspapers listing homes for sale in Cerritos. Whitney and its achievements are always prominently mentioned in the ads, the lure of the number one public school making an otherwise ordinary, landlocked slice of suburbia irresistible to foreign house hunters."

Gretchen Whitney High School in Cerritos is truly a "School of Dreams." This is a school where discipline problems are rare and test scores astronomical. Because the parents have sacrificed so much, their children are under tremendous pressure to pass the highly competitive entrance exam, which they take in the sixth grade. The desperation to gain admittance to the school — which spans seventh to 12th grade — has resulted in numerous professional after-school tutoring academies sprouting up in the neighborhood, Humes writes, "at first catering to sixth-grade students, then fifth, and finally rolling back to first grade and even kindergarten." Once students earn a coveted spot, however, they have no time to savor their success. They immediately embark on a high-pressure six-year journey whose only acceptable destination is admittance to a prestigious university, preferably "HYP" — the school's shorthand for "Harvard, Yale or Princeton."

To reach this promised land, many students arise before 6 and study until 2 or 3 the next morning, needing frequent infusions of Starbucks triple grande lattes to stay awake. Few of the teenagers at Whitney, Humes contends, take drugs or engage in premarital sex. In fact, he writes, there is peer pressure to avoid sex, drugs and alcohol. These students are uniformly disciplined, goal-oriented, respectful of their parents and obsessively motivated. Compared with the stereotypical American teenager — a promiscuous, boozing, drug-addled slacker who slides through high school with the minimum of effort — the resolute teenagers Humes depicts are a welcome alternative. And the result of their onerous schedules is impressive. Their average SAT score in 2001 was 1,343 — more than 300 points above the national average and the second highest in the country among public high schools. (New York City's Stuyvesant High School is No. 1.) They ace the AP exams, and the overwhelming majority gain acceptance to HYP, a University of California campus or other prestigious private colleges.

I doubt you'll find any future welfare weenies and queenies at schools like Whitney.
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