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

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

4.7 9
by Edward Humes

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In School of Dreams, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Edward Humes chronicles the year he spent inside one of America's top public high schools, where students struggle to harmonize parents' expectations with their own goals and teachers search for that elusive balance between creating great test-takers and fostering great learners. Humes gives us an inside look at


In School of Dreams, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Edward Humes chronicles the year he spent inside one of America's top public high schools, where students struggle to harmonize parents' expectations with their own goals and teachers search for that elusive balance between creating great test-takers and fostering great learners. Humes gives us an inside look at the daily joys, disasters, stress, and struggles of the memorable students of Whitney High, as well as those of their teachers and parents. The result is an honest and enlightening story of what life is really like for today's high-achieving high school students -- and a revealing look at the state of public education in America.

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
Most books about education are notoriously dull; this one -- a masterly example of passionate yet even-handed reporting -- is as enthralling as Richard Hofstatder's classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. It deserves an A+, even without grade inflation. — Michael Dirda
Publishers Weekly
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Humes (Mississippi Mud, etc.) spent 2001 at top-ranked Whitney High School in Cerritos, Calif. While helping seniors with their college application essays, he was also trying to understand this public school's astounding success. Not only do its students, year after year, proceed to America's top colleges, but increasingly, families move to Cerritos-from all over the world-so their children can attend Whitney. The school is selective; an entrance test is required. But academic "cherry-picking" is only part of the story. Once at Whitney, students surpass similarly skilled students elsewhere-and not because of computers, standardized curriculum, "no child left behind" programs or high-stakes testing. Rather, Humes finds, it's an old-fashioned combination of high expectations and committed educators. They expect students to put in long hours, even "all-nighters." Discipline problems and drug use are unusual and taken seriously when they do occur. All Whitney's teachers are encouraged to educate for something more lasting and meaningful than the AP exams. Elsewhere in America, Humes learns, there's a "bias against the intellectually gifted," but at Whitney, students are expected to work hard, learn a lot and achieve. While Humes notes a few downsides to this culture of high expectations-stress, caffeine addiction and cheating problems-they seem fairly manageable at Whitney. As America's policy makers obsess over minimum proficiency standards, Humes, in his well-written, informative study, presents the Whitney model as a needed corrective, urging parents and policy makers to study success for a change. Agent, Susan Ginsburg. (Sept. 1) Forecast: With advertising, an author tour and an easy-to-read, non-technical style, Humes's book should gain attention in the national debates over education reform. Parents of college-bound students might find it useful in a different way-Humes, especially in the prologue, has some good insights on the college application essay-writing struggle. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
University of Oregon
"A big story told intimately and well, and a book that is not only compulsively readable but also undeniably important." —Lauren Kessler
Los Angeles Times

"Humes' fascinating book chronicles an entirely different group of students, with a different set of challenges."
author of ODD GIRL OUT - Rachel Simmons

"Beautifully written and compulsively readable, told compassionately but with a journalist's eye to getting the whole story."
George S. Prince, Jr. - Hampshire College President

"School of Dreams gives hope about American education… and genuine excitement about the young people of this nation."
The Washington Post - Michael Dirda

"A masterly example of passionate yet even-handed reporting…. It deserves an A+, even without grade inflation."
University of Oregon - Lauren Kessler

"A big story told intimately and well, and a book that is not only compulsively readable but also undeniably important."
From the Publisher

"A masterly example of passionate yet even-handed reporting . . . Deserves an A+, even without grade inflation." -Michael Dirda, The Washington Post book world

"Engrossing . . . Deserves credit for showing that a fine public school education isn't necessarily an oxymoron."-The Boston Globe

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.06(w) x 9.26(h) x 1.34(d)
Age Range:
14 Years

Read an Excerpt

"We have great kids here, wonderful students. The best. I love teaching here." The drama teacher hurls the obligatory praise over her shoulder like a trail of bread crumbs as she leads the fresh arrivals on a quick tour of their new school. Then she gets to the inevitable but, her voice a stage whisper now, forcing the six new teachers hurrying after her to crane forward. "But there are two things you really, really have to remember about this place...."

Jodi Improta heads Whitney High School's drama department with good reason: She knows how to set up a line. "First, these kids are messy," she tells them. She bobs her blond head at a Coke bottle and some crumpled papers scattered on the ground outside the library, courtesy of the kids who stopped by earlier for textbook pickup. "They never pick up their trash. Unless you ride them."

The new teachers chuckle and relax a bit. Their tour guide's conspirational tone had left them worried there for a minute. But litterbugs? Even the greenest educator can handle that. Improta picks up the refuse, pitches it into a trash can, then pushes through a set of double doors into the old square warehouse of a school building. She pauses in her brisk stroll just long enough to introduce a barrage of passing faculty members in the hallway and to point out the alcove holding the all-important staff copy machines and laminator. The newbies nod blankly, trying to absorb it all. Improta has them lulled now. No one sees the punch line coming.

"Now, here's the second thing you gotta remember," she resumes cheerfully. "Some of our kids cheat. Big time."

Six heads snap to attention at this, a frieze of knitted brows and pursed lips. One of the new teachers laughs nervously. Trash on the asphalt is one thing, but this bald statement about cheating brings them up short.

This is, after all, Gretchen Whitney High School she's talking about, the top-ranked public high school in California, one of the best (and best-kept secrets) in the nation-prep-school quality at public-school prices. In an era when public education is derided daily by pundits and presidents as hopelessly broken, blamed for every social ill from a dearth of youthful patriotism to an abundance of youthful pregnancies, Whitney High is an unabashed success. It is a public school that works, without any special funding, charters, vouchers, union concessions, or private enterprise takeovers-none of the most-touted cures for what supposedly ails public education. There are no uniforms, no scripted lesson plans, no zero-tolerance policies. As such, Whitney is no one's political cause or poster child, and if its principal is treated like a celebrity abroad, he stands anonymous in the checkout line at the local supermarket; his school is not only off the national radar screen, it is a virtual unknown in its own state and even in neighboring Los Angeles, where other schools get all the press. Yet test scores at Whitney rival those at the nation's most elite private and public academies,1 the best colleges in the country court and woo the seniors like starstruck autograph seekers, few years go by without someone (or two or three) scoring a perfect SAT. People don't just move from other cities to this geographically unfashionable L.A. suburb so they can send their kids to Whitney. They move from other countries to attend an American public high school. And come graduation night, Whitney doesn't have just one or two valedictorians. Most years a dozen or more 4.0s line up to shake the Whitney principal's hand.

"Don't be so surprised," the drama teacher cautions. "Our kids are so smart, they find ways to get around the rules. Ways you've never imagined." She goes on to describe an elaborate method several students worked out for beaming test answers to one another's PalmPilots.

It is almost too much to bear. First the six new teachers had to weather that interminable high school ritual, the welcome-back faculty meeting, with its meandering agenda, weak coffee, and insider references only initiates could follow. Later they were introduced to their classrooms, some to be shared with veteran teachers (who had already staked out most of the drawers, shelves, and prime wall space), others in varying states of cleanliness and repair (one new science teacher had to excavate a quarter century's accumulation of old papers; a Dumpster was thoughtfully provided). Then they sat through an inspirational video by a National Geographic photographer whose funereally paced pronouncements on "everyday creativity" sounded suspiciously like the old "Deep Thoughts, by Jack Handy," parody of Saturday Night Live fame ("There's always more than one right answer! Don't be afraid to make mistakes!").

And, finally, there is this ten-minute tour, the only orientation these new teachers will get before the students arrive in two days, a brief jaunt through the school's less-than-impressive physical plant. Like most newcomers, they gape at the aged carpets, walls, furniture, and double-decker rows of lockers in the halls, all colored in a rainbow of oranges, mustards, yellows, browns, and harvest golds-a palette traditionally reserved for certain 1970s-era suburban kitchens, but repeated extravagantly here in classroom after classroom. For those used to it, the extraordinary ugliness is a point of pride, testament to the fact that Whitney manages to be the top-ranked high school in all of California despite receiving less money per pupil than any other school in its district. But these are new teachers, unaware of such subtle charms. They're looking less prideful than shell-shocked.

Improta takes pity on them. She simply meant to inform, not to horrify, when she dished a little on cheating-better to be prepared than blindsided, she figures. "They're really good kids here," she promises. "This is a great place to teach. But they're under such pressure-from their parents, from us, from the colleges. Maybe it's partly our fault, but some of them feel compelled to cheat. So you really have to watch them, that's all."

And then they arrive back at the administration office suite, the tour ending where it began, next to the orange-and-yellow counter piled high with doughnut-shop goodies for the staff, with stacks of first-day student information packets ready for stapling, and with the principal, Dr. Thomas Brock, who for no particular reason at all is standing atop the counter, surveying his domain with a broad smile on his bearded face. "Welcome to Whitney High School," Improta remembers to say before heading off to prep her room.

Copyright © 2003 by Edward Humes

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc.,
6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

Meet the Author

Edward Humes is a veteran journalist, contributing to the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine, and has written numerous books including Baby E. R. and the bestselling Mississippi Mud, Mean Justice, and No Matter How Loud I Shout. A graduate of Hampshire College and a Pulitzer Prize winner, he lives in Southern California with his family.

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School of Dreams: Making the Grade at a Top American High School 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Summary: The School of Dreams, A novel by Edward Humes, is a book explaining the lives of students at a top American high school. When this school was first thought about, it was a school for only a few things such as art, business, or music. Shortly after becoming a high school, they made it a clear goal to be one of the best. With help from all of the staff they urged the students to learn the material for time instead of for the grade. The staff worked constantly to make the school feel like a safe place and it soon paid off. The students didn¿t go home after school, the came in early before school, and became very close with all of their teachers. This book follows the lives of a few students from Whitney High School telling about their great experiences and not so great experiences at the school, to having to drink coffee to pull all nighters, studying for AP exams, and all of the fun they had with their peers. This book focuses on the differences between parents of different races and how they push their children or don¿t care enough. The story of Whitney High School in Cerritos, California is very interesting from the time when it was farm land. This is a great magnetic novel for anyone in high school, because you are not the only one following the rule of the "Magic number is four: four hours of sleep, four café lattes, 4.0." Themes: in life never forget that you are not the only one, don¿t underestimate yourself, and don¿t stereotype because you have no idea what kind of day that person is having. Likes: My major likes of this book is how easily I can connect to it. I am now attending one of the top high schools in Colorado and feel the pain of these students at Whitney High. You should read this book especially if you are in high school, it is easy to connect to and it kind of gives you a break from your high school life to sit down and see that you may not have it the worst. It truly opened up my eyes. This book is phenomenal! It is beautifully written; showing the world that high school is really where it's at.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
of-course More than 1 year ago
What a wake-up to our society about the pressures being placed upon our high schoolers.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Edward Humes aspiring book, School of Dreams is an incredible story of a top achieving public high school. The book is a satisfying read and a page-turner. It gives you a window of what happens behind high school doors. As a student enrolled in a top achieving high school I found the experiences in this book both insightful and misleading. The different types of ways in which students made themselves stay up at night and do tons of homework shows how everyone strives to be on top. Whitney is a school that attracts families from all over the world because of its high reputation. Because of all the high standards, Whitney is considered mostly Asian. Whitney is not a high school that is preparing its students for college or the outside world and realities. It is a school that is all about scoring the highest on the college placement tests. It is a story of `pushed¿ students often driven by parents to achieve excellence. School of Dreams is a story for someone who wants to know about a student¿s life underneath the skin at a top achieving high school. Also, to see what lengths teachers and parents put on their students to get into a top university. And to reveal what hardships parents put on their child psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually to earn that top grade.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Reading this book was like a glimpse into the future of my daughter's education. It was in-depth, interesting, and scary at times. We live in Texas and are almost comically underwhelmed by the poorly run system of public eduation here. My daughter attends a private Episcopal school here. In this setting, parents are eagar to be involved in their children's education. We only get what we pay for. So needless to say, we run our own school. So much gets lost in monolithic administrative policies and beaurocrats. Many of the setbacks and criticisms that occur at Whitney are overcome by just doing to all themselves. They don't get the money that other mainstream schools get, but they know how to produce brilliantly, educated children without all the bells and whistles. A back-to-basics approach and hard work may become standard we all want for our schools. Thank you Mr.Humes for giving us this refreshing look at education!
Guest More than 1 year ago
School of Dreams, by Edward Humes gives hope about the future of American education. This book tells the stories on how well-intended policies can undo hope of a better education. It focuses on a full range of issues confonting America's pubic school system. Telling the story of Whitney High School and its family of students, teachers and families, readers get a sense that its not all about preparing students for college. Throughout School of Dreams, the students are the most important story. Students are expected to escape into the conclusion that the students consider themselves to be the 'driver.' This book shows America's challnges at High School. I closed School of Dreams with absolute sastifaction that, underachieving at school isn't the 'driving' source.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Edward Humes' outstanding analysis of California's top achieving public high school reads like a fast-paced novel. From the preface that had me in tears to the epilogue where the author delivers terrific insight into what it takes to create an exceptional learning environment , School of Dreams is a stimulating exploration of what turns a failing vocational high school into a gifted magnet program. Today Whitney High School attracts families from all over the world, especially Asia. After finishing this book, I bought five copies to share with our high school principal, fellow school board members, and parents concerned that our school district has so little to offer children who seek academic challenges and aspire to top universities. An added bonus, School of Dreams is happily devoid of educational jargon, making it accessible to a broad audience.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Having Edward Humes at our high school was a great honor. Not only was our obscure little school highlighted in this well written book, it was a great pleasure to have a renowned authour, such as he, enter Whitney High and see lives of the students for an entire year. Great job on the book, and I will be looking forward to getting it signed in October
Guest More than 1 year ago
This novel is a great read and really helps to uncover the real inner workings of a modern education. I recommend it to everyone