It was late 2005 when it finally hit us: Our son, an 8th-grader at Wilson Middle School in Glendale, was fast approaching The High School Years. It just sort of snuck up on us.

When we moved to Southern California from the Midwest in 1998, my wife and I chose to live in Glendale—Verdugo-Woodlands in particular—over the alternatives of Los Angeles and Pasadena because of the public schools. V-W Elementary is a special place, as everyone in that neighborhood knows. Wilson: pretty good, too.

Then there is Glendale High. We were warned by friends and neighbors and Realtors that we might not want to send our kids there. But in 1998, our kids were 6 and 4, and high school was years away. We figured we’d deal with that then.

Suddenly, it was then. Like a lot of parents we knew who were in the same boat, we started to panic. We had heard all the horror stories about GHS – the overcrowding, the low test scores, the kids from troubled homes, the gangs, the fights.

So we did what many of our friends were doing: we started looking at private schools. We read the brochures, took the open house tours, and applied our son to Harvard-Westlake, Pasadena Poly and Flintridge Prep, among others. He was accepted to all three, and suddenly we were staring down the barrel of $20,000 a year in private school tuition, no matter which one we chose. That’s 80 grand for high school, even before we started thinking about paying for college. Not to mention the education of our daughter, just two years behind her brother.

Some of our friends had chosen a third route: They moved to Montrose or La Crescenta to get their kids into C-V High School. For reasons too numerous to go into here, that was not a practical option for us.

We were a two-income household, but working in newspapers and higher education, we could just barely afford to live in Verdugo-Woodlands, but probably not also send our kids to private school. Even with an offer of assistance from my Mom, we were facing a crushing financial burden.

Then fate intervened. In the spring on 2006, I was offered a transfer by my employer to Washington, D.C. It seemed the perfect solution on so many levels: a dream job for me, a chance to return home to the East Coast and be near my family, and some of the best public schools in the nation for our kids.

We settled in suburban Fairfax County, Virginia, and were amazed by the quality of the schools and the money invested in public education. (If California’s public schools were funded and operated like Fairfax County’s, Glendale would have five high schools, not three, with two new ones built in the last 20 years.) Yes, the property taxes were astronomical – no Proposition 13 in Virginia – but still a bargain compared to private school tuition. Bullet dodged.

Then came The Crash of 2008. Long story short: we ended up back in Glendale, both unemployed, no money for private schools, and two teenagers insisting on being reunited with their V-W and Wilson friends at Glendale High. Despite some residual misgivings, we relented, with the proviso that they would take mostly AP and Honors classes and focus on college prep.

My first impressions of GHS were not good. It was during our first Open House, in September 2008. With its windowless façade and high security fences with iron bars, the place looked like a penitentiary. Just getting on campus as a parent felt like visiting your kid in jail. Inside the gates, a sea of concrete and asphalt, it was not exactly clean. The physical plant was obviously stressed from overcrowding and underfunding. I made disparaging comments–which I now regret–about GHS in front of my kids, lamenting what we had left behind in Virginia.

But over time, I came to realize that many of the negative stereotypes about GHS were just that, stereotypes. Gangs? Fights? A myth. Drugs? Practically non-existent. Academics? Yes, some teachers seemed to be just going through the motions, but many others were terrific. Some would even call us at home if our kids had missed a few days of school or were behind in their homework assignments. (Special shout-outs to Holly Ciotti and Amy Rangel, who made lasting impressions on us and our kids.)

The AP and Honors classes were especially challenging. My kids were surprised how hard they had to work. Coming from Fairfax County, where the school curriculum is a full year ahead of Glendale’s, they thought GHS would be a breeze. Wrong. They both have struggled mightily at times with the workload.

Much is made about the ethnic Balkanization at GHS. But that, too, is exaggerated. In the big center courtyard during breaks, it’s true that many kids tend to cluster with their cultural groups – the Mexicans over here, the Armenians over there, the Anglos over that way, etc. But teenagers tend to form cliques no matter where they go to school. In my high school in the ‘70s, there was zero ethnic diversity, but we split up into the jocks and stoners and nerds.

My son’s circle of friends at GHS included kids with Anglo, Japanese, Iranian, Armenian, Filipino, Indian and Mexican backgrounds. It’s a similar mix with my daughter’s group. To them, ethnicity is no big deal, just another trait like being tall, short, male or female. Having grown up in the Southern California melting pot, our kids thought the white-bread suburban scene in Virginia was a little weird and unnatural.

Three years on from that first Open House, our son is a proud graduate of GHS and starting his sophomore year at a major West Coast university. Our daughter is a senior at GHS, a strong student who has her sights set on UC next year. Despite my initial misgivings about GHS, both of our kids have turned out beautifully. They made good choices, made friends with other good kids, stayed out of trouble, and are well on their ways to college and adulthood.

I don’t want to sugarcoat it. Glendale High has problems. It’s woefully underfunded and overcrowded. And at times it seems like it’s being run by airport security guards from the TSA.

I am also aware that my change of heart about GHS could be perceived as simply a matter of lowered expectations, of learning to accept what we ended up with and not dwell on what could have been. But I don’t think so. The truth is GHS exceeded expectations because it really is better than people think. F or me, it’s been a lesson in perception vs. reality, and the importance of giving people and institutions a chance to prove themselves.

I am not trying to promote Glendale High, or influence other parents’ decisions. We are almost done with our GHS years, so I have no personal stake in how the school fares going forward, or what school choices other parents make. And if not for the turn of events, we might have followed the private schools path as many of our friends did. But we didn’t, and things have turned out fine.

That’s my Glendale schools story. What’s yours?





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