CUPERTINO, Calif. — By most measures, Monta Vista High here and Lynbrook High, in nearby San Jose, are among the nation’s top public high schools. Both boast stellar test scores, an array of advanced-placement classes and a track record of sending graduates from the affluent suburbs of Silicon Valley to prestigious colleges.
But locally, they’re also known for something else: white flight. Over the past 10 years, the proportion of white students at Lynbrook has fallen by nearly half, to 25% of the student body. At Monta Vista, white students make up less than one-third of the population, down from 45% — this in a town that’s half white. Some white Cupertino parents are instead sending their children to private schools or moving them to other, whiter public schools. More commonly, young white families in Silicon Valley say they are avoiding Cupertino altogether.
Whites aren’t quitting the schools because the schools are failing academically. Quite the contrary: Many white parents say they’re leaving because the schools are too academically driven and too narrowly invested in subjects such as math and science at the expense of liberal arts and extracurriculars like sports and other personal interests.
The two schools, put another way that parents rarely articulate so bluntly, are too Asian.
Cathy Gatley, co-president of Monta Vista High School’s parent-teacher association, recently dissuaded a family with a young child from moving to Cupertino because there are so few young white kids left in the public schools. “This may not sound good,” she confides, “but their child may be the only Caucasian kid in the class.” All of Ms. Gatley’s four children have attended or are currently attending Monta Vista. One son, Andrew, 17 years old, took the high-school exit exam last summer and left the school to avoid the academic pressure. He is currently working in a pet-supply store. Ms. Gatley, who is white, says she probably wouldn’t have moved to Cupertino if she had anticipated how much it would change.
In the 1960s, the term “white flight” emerged to describe the rapid exodus of whites from big cities into the suburbs, a process that often resulted in the economic degradation of the remaining community. Back then, the phenomenon was mostly believed to be sparked by the growth in the population of African-Americans, and to a lesser degree Hispanics, in some major cities.
But this modern incarnation is different. Across the country, Asian-Americans have by and large been successful and accepted into middle- and upper-class communities. Silicon Valley has kept Cupertino’s economy stable, and the town is almost indistinguishable from many of the suburbs around it. The shrinking number of white students hasn’t hurt the academic standards of Cupertino’s schools — in fact the opposite is true.
This time the effect is more subtle: Some Asians believe that the resulting lack of diversity creates an atmosphere that is too sheltering for their children, leaving then unprepared for life in a country that is only 4% Asian overall. Moreover, many Asians share some of their white counterpart’s concerns. Both groups finger newer Asian immigrants for the schools’ intense competitiveness.
Some whites fear that by avoiding schools with large Asian populations parents are short-changing their own children, giving them the idea that they can’t compete with Asian kids…
The white exodus clearly involves race-based presumptions, not all of which are positive. One example: Asian parents are too competitive. That sounds like racism to many of Cupertino’s Asian residents, who resent the fact that their growing numbers and success are causing many white families to boycott the town altogether…
She says she began to reconsider after her elder son, Matthew, entered Kennedy, the middle school that feeds Monta Vista. As he played soccer, Ms. Doherty watched a line of cars across the street deposit Asian kids for after-school study. She also attended a Monta Vista parents’ night and came away worrying about the school’s focus on test scores and the big-name colleges its graduates attend.
“My sense is that at Monta Vista you’re competing against the child beside you,” she says. Ms. Doherty says she believes the issue stems more from recent immigrants than Asians as a whole. “Obviously, the concentration of Asian students is really high, and it does flavor the school,” she says.
When Matthew, now a student at Notre Dame, finished middle school eight years ago, Ms. Doherty decided to send him to Bellarmine College Preparatory, a Jesuit school that she says has a culture that “values the whole child.” It’s also 55% white and 24% Asian. Her younger son, Kevin, followed suit.
…Asians are particularly intent that their kids work hard and excel, says Anat Eisenberg, a local Coldwell Banker real-estate agent. “Everybody is caught into this process of driving their kids.”
…Some students struggle in Cupertino’s high schools who might not elsewhere. Monta Vista’s Academic Performance Index, which compares the academic performance of California’s schools, reached an all-time high of 924 out of 1,000 this year, making it one of the highest-scoring high schools in Northern California. Grades are so high that a ‘B’ average puts a student in the bottom third of a class.
…Some white parents, and even some students, say they suspect teachers don’t take white kids as seriously as Asians.
“Many of my Asian friends were convinced that if you were Asian, you had to confirm you were smart. If you were white, you had to prove it,” says Arar Han, a Monta Vista graduate who recently co-edited “Asian American X,” a book of coming-of-age essays by young Asian-Americans.
Ms. Gatley, the Monta Vista PTA president, is more blunt: “White kids are thought of as the dumb kids,” she says.
…Mr. Rowley, who is white, enrolled his only son, Eddie, at Lynbrook. When Eddie started freshman geometry, the boy was frustrated to learn that many of the Asian students in his class had already taken the course in summer school, Mr. Rowley recalls. That gave them a big leg up.
To many of Cupertino’s Asians, some of the assumptions made by white parents — that Asians are excessively competitive and single-minded — play into stereotypes.
…”It does help to have a lower Asian population,” says Homestead PTA President Mary Anne Norling. “I don’t think our parents are as uptight as if my kids went to Monta Vista.”