High School Confidential

Twenty students hunched over their computer keyboards or slumped at their desks on a recent Saturday afternoon in Brenda Feldman's newspaper class. They were preparing articles for February's edition of Highlights, the monthly Coral Gables Senior High School newspaper, which would be published February 27. Staff writer Kurt Panton labored over a follow-up article about the most controversial news in months: the Coral Gables City Commission's unanimous December 16 decision to study the possibility of creating a new high school open only to Coral Gables residents. During interviews with Panton, two commissioners seemed to retreat from their positions, and the teenage reporter was struggling to reconcile the apparent contradictions.

The commission vote and its repercussions were the subjects of two probing news stories and a searing editorial in the previous edition of Highlights, an award-winning publication with all the earmarks of a professional newspaper -- sports and features sections, lifestyle articles, front-page news. In the course of reporting and writing their stories about the Gables commission, the young journalists managed to expose the city's class divisions, annoy local political leaders, and learn a few lessons about the hothouse world of municipal government. Their teacher, Brenda Feldman, a 30-year veteran, couldn't have been more pleased. "I like it when they deal with controversial issues," she said. "I think it's important for them to realize they cover the community as well as the school."

Relations between city officials and students at Gables High have not always been so contentious. For about 35 years after it opened in 1950, the school was the pride of the city, its pupils consistently achieving top scores on college entrance tests.

But Dade County and its institutions have changed dramatically. The student population at Gables High, which includes grades ten through twelve, has grown to nearly 120 percent of capacity, and unsightly portable classrooms clutter the athletic fields to manage the overflow. Only 570 of 3350 students actually live in Coral Gables; the majority are drawn from the City of Miami, including low-income sections of Coconut Grove and Little Havana. The student body today is significantly poorer than it was a generation ago; roughly one-quarter of students come from families with incomes below the poverty line.

The school has not escaped racial difficulties, either. Two years ago this month, a disturbance on school grounds prompted a widely publicized, bloody confrontation between black students and police that resulted in injuries to six officers, the arrest of a half-dozen black youths, and charges of racism from at least one black Dade County leader. Many Coral Gables residents -- a mere four percent of whom are black -- were mortified to witness racially tinged violence so close to home.

To compound commissioners' concerns, this past December city officials compared Coral Gables's scores on the High School Competency Test of basic reading and math skills to similar Dade high schools and found it ranked eighth out of eight.

And so the city's elected officials have found themselves scrambling to placate complaining constituents while also trying to project an image to prospective residents that Coral Gables offers educational opportunities worthy of its reputation for beauty and efficiency. Hence the idea of a residents-only academy that would be financed, commissioners suggested, with a portion of the $50 million in education taxes collected from city property owners.

But to Highlights writers, the proposal smacked of elitism; they even coined a name for the place: Riviera Country Club School, after the exclusive Coral Gables landmark. "The commissioners are not out to remove students with lower test scores," wrote senior Gerry Watkins in a January 30 editorial, "they're out to remove families with smaller bank accounts, and the only values they're interested in are property values."

In the same edition, Highlights managing editor Joel Torres reported that, when City Manager Jack Eads gave the commission his assessment of the problems at Coral Gables High, he neglected to mention that "the school had the third-highest SAT [Scholastic Assessment Test] scores in the county."

Weeks after publication of that issue, the newspaper's staff was still bewildered by what they considered an assault on their reputations. "It's like the problems of Gables High are caused by people who don't live in the Gables," said circulation manager Monica Roos, a junior who lives in South Miami. "I don't see how I'm causing a problem. They should look at the problems and stop assuming that the Gables kids are perfect."

Some staffers charged that commissioners were motivated by a desire to exclude blacks from a new city high school, but junior Kurt Panton, who is black, disputed that. "I think the goal may not be simply to get black people out of the school," he said slyly. "I think it's an added bonus."

The student reporters' initial interviews with their civic leaders also left them disillusioned, even indignant. Torres, for example, spoke with Coral Gables Mayor Raul Valdes-Fauli, Jr. "His only concern was the money -- that they [city officials] weren't bringing in enough money," recounted Torres, a junior. "Their desire to reform the school system is secondary to the loss of money."

Mayor Valdes-Fauli bridled when he heard of Torres's remarks. "That's silly," he snapped. "On the contrary, we are very, very interested in the quality of the school and the quality of education in these schools. Of course I'm interested in city finances, but that's not all."

Section editor Brady Ward, a junior, recalled how surprised she had been when, in the course of covering a scholastic awards ceremony at the school, she observed Commissioner Dorothy Thomson extolling Gables High's virtues. "She was giving a speech about how wonderful the school was," Ward said. "For her to propose a new school and tell us how wonderful we are is hypocritical. It completely contradicts what she's proposing."

Thomson, who is campaigning for re-election, later argued that it was the other commissioners, not her, who had found fault with Coral Gables High -- even though she voted with them to seek proposals for a new school. "I have not been the one who's been in the forefront of criticism of the school," she said somewhat defensively. During her address at the awards ceremony, she added, she fondly recalled the school's classroom environment during the Eighties, when her four daughters were in attendance. "If things have gone awry, it may be a sign of the times and a sad commentary on our society today," she observed. "I don't know what's at the school. I can't accuse."

Highlights writers also were disappointed because they received no comments about their stories from elected officials. Copies of the January issue had been sent to the commissioners along with letters inviting them to respond. Valdes-Fauli said he didn't receive his. Commissioner Jim Barker said he received the paper, read a portion of one story, but did not reply.

The students and their teacher, however, were even more offended by a December 17 story about the commission proposal published in the Miami Herald. The article did not include comment from anyone in defense of Coral Gables High, and a subsequent letter to the editor from principal Mandy Offerle, in which she invited city residents to visit and volunteer their time to help the school, was never published. "I teach my kids to get both sides of the story," journalism instructor Feldman noted. "And they saw a story where the reporter apparently didn't make any attempt to do that or didn't make enough of an attempt to do that."

Eventually two commissioners -- Barker and Thomson -- did pay a visit to the school, and according to Kurt Panton, who took the opportunity to interview them, they expressed a determination to help Gables High any way they could. That was enough to keep the subject alive for Feldman and her charges. "The students will continue to pursue this," she insisted. "We want the commissioners to make another public statement. We want to find out how their plan is going.

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