If you cruise down Atlantic Avenue on the west side of Long Beach, Calif., past the Goodwill shop, the carniceria and panaderia, the liquor stores and churches, past the beauty parlor specializing in hair weaves, you eventually come to the imposing edifice of Long Beach Polytechnic High. For as long as anyone can remember, the school slogan has been emblazoned above the front entrance in bold green lettering: Home of Scholars & Champions. Given the gritty surroundings, which have been immortalized in the gangsta rap of alum Calvin Broadus, a.k.a. Snoop Dogg, this ethos seems like wishful thinking or clever p.r. Yet those words have a profound effect on the kids who pass beneath them.
"Oh, God, I loved that sign. I loved its message," says Billie Jean King, the tennis legend who graduated from Poly in 1961 (back when she was known as Billie Jean Moffitt). "Every morning I would pause in front of it and just breathe it in to remind me of my purpose. Whenever I'm back home in Long Beach, I drive by the school just to get a glimpse of it for inspiration."
"That sign is no joke," says Willie McGinest, the New England Patriots' two-time Pro Bowl linebacker and Poly class of '90. "Scholars & Champions is not just paint, man. It's been written in blood and sweat."
Champions? No doubt about that. Based on its across-the-board sports success over the last 10 years, Long Beach Poly has been chosen by SI as the high school with the nation's best overall athletic program, heading a top 25 made up of schools from 19 states (page 60). With apologies to USC, the Jackrabbits have the most celebrated football program in Southern California. Since 1996 Poly has gone undefeated three times and won five championships in the ferociously competitive California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Southern Section. (There is no state football tournament in California.) In the school's 110-year history four-dozen grads have gone on to the NFL, including eight who were on opening week rosters in 2004: McGinest, Oakland Raiders defensive back Marques Anderson, Arizona Cardinals running back Larry Croom, Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Kareem Kelly, Cardinals quarterback Chris Lewis, Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Samie Parker, New York Giants defensive back Omar Stoutmire and San Francisco 49ers defensive end Brandon Whiting. Poly has also produced NFL rookies of the year Mark Carrier, Leonard Russell and Gene Washington, the last of whom is now the league's director of Football Operations.
The track program hasn't turned out as many well-known names, but at the high school level it is even more dominant than the football squad, with the boys' and girls' teams having won a combined seven state titles since 1997. The girls' relay teams (4...100, 4...200 and 4...400) set seven national records during an 18-month stretch in 2003--04, led by junior Shana Woods, who also owns three national age-group records in the heptathlon. The basketball teams aren't bad either. In March the girls won the CIF southern section, powered by freshman Jasmine Dixon, a 5'10" guard whom Poly principal Shawn Ashley refers to as "this school's next franchise athlete." The boys' team had won 71 straight Moore League games before falling to Long Beach Jordan in January. At Poly, losing transcends disappointment and produces something closer to shame. The day after the hoops streak ended, senior guard Chris Peys says, "I didn't want to come to school. I put my hood up and beelined to class. It's like not only did we let the whole student body down, we also let down their parents who went to Poly, their brothers who went to Poly, their cousins...."
Of course football, basketball and track are the kinds of sports at which a big, urban school might be expected to excel, but Poly is also a powerhouse in the country club games. The boys' golf team went undefeated in the league last year, and the boys' tennis team has been to the CIF section finals two years in a row. Even the cross-country and badminton teams kick serious butt, each having won three straight league titles.
But what is all the more remarkable about Poly is that many of the athletes really are scholars, just as the sign says. Senior Pat Traughber, the No. 2 player on the boys' golf team, is currently taking four advanced-placement courses (calculus, chemistry, statistics, and English), yet his 1,380 on the SAT wasn't even the highest score on his team. The star of the badminton squad is junior Samantha Jinadasa, who carries a 3.7 GPA ("unweighted," she points out) with a schedule that includes calculus and three other AP classes. In her minimal free time she is part of a biomedical-research program, working with doctors at Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles studying methods to improve the success rate of kidney transplants. Oh, by the way, last March Jinadasa finished second at the Pan Am Games, competing in mixed doubles with her brother Nick, a 2003 Poly grad.
"Is it cool to be a badminton player at Poly? Definitely--as long as you win," Jinadasa says. "It doesn't matter what you do here as long as you do it well. We're proud of our mathletes [academic competitors], we're proud of our band. The things that aren't cool at other high schools are looked at differently here because they achieve tremendous success."
At Poly even the football stars play against type. Senior wideout Desean Jackson was the Los Angeles Times's player of the year in 2004, thanks to his game-breaking elusiveness and leadership skills, which propelled a young team to the CIF championship. Yet the most impressive line on his résumé might be his 1,280 on the SAT. Having spurned USC, Oklahoma, Florida and LSU, Jackson will suit up in the fall for Cal, drawn in part by the vibrant academic environment in Berkeley.
Jackson, whose older brother Byron played for the Chiefs in 1993, is one of seven players from this year's team to have earned Division I-A scholarships, which is slightly lower than usual, as typically a dozen or so Jackrabbits score full rides in any given year. "Coming from Poly, you're more attractive to colleges because they know you can handle the schoolwork too," says McGinest, who was a B student in high school before going on to become an All-America and earn a degree in public administration at USC. To keep its football players on track, Poly has study halls with an emphasis on preparing for the SAT and meeting NCAA academic requirements. Every six weeks players must give their tutors a progress report, which is prepared by one of their teachers and covers grades and attitude.
The engine that drives the school's emphasis on academics is the districtwide magnet program PACE (Program of Additional Curricular Experiences). Every year more than 800 kids from across Long Beach apply for 175 spots in PACE. Entrance standards are so tough that last year an applicant who had a 3.6 GPA and ranked in the 90th percentile in state standardized tests for math and English was not accepted. The kids who get in are as competitive in athletics as they are in academics. PACE coordinator Richard Garretson estimates that in any given year 50%--75% of his students play on one or more teams, and they have a profound effect on the ambitions of the entire student body. Says principal Ashley, "College is all the PACE kids ever talk about, all they ever think about, and that becomes part of the culture of the school. It makes college a tangible goal and a reachable destination for students who might otherwise never have considered it."
A recent Harvard study made headlines with the depressing statistic that the overall graduation rate at California high schools is just 71% and that 43% of African-American and 40% of Latino students in the state drop out. At Poly 90% of incoming freshmen go on to graduate; last year 192 Poly students matriculated to the University of California system. According to Poly that was the most from any high school in the state. This is all the more impressive considering that Poly's 4,750 students--the largest enrollment in the Southern Section--are a multihued snapshot of urban America: 35% Asian, 25% African-American, 15% Latino, 13% white and 12% Pacific Islander.
About the only homogeneity at Poly is on the playing fields. The boys' and the girls' basketball teams are almost entirely black, the golf teams mostly white, the coed badminton squad overwhelmingly Asian, the linemen on the football team traditionally Somoan. But even amidst this apparent sameness there is variety; the badminton team comprises players of Cambodian, Vietnamese, Chinese or Sri Lankan descent, and coach Steve Meckna can shout encouragement in three languages.
Long Beach is California's fifth-largest city, with a population just under 500,000. Like any large metropolitan area, it has its good and bad neighborhoods, but the school's proximity to both extremes makes the differences more jarring. Ten minutes to the east of the Poly campus is the exclusive enclave of Naples Island, which along with other nearby wealthy neighborhoods supplies a surprising number of students, drawn by the PACE program's record of getting its participants into the most exclusive colleges. The shiny examples of German engineering dotting the student parking lot only add to the school's stew.
"We've got everyone from rich kids to the underclass, we've got every race and ethnicity, yet walking down the hallways, it's all love," says senior Pierre Batton, a standout tennis player who carries a business card embossed with the city of Long Beach seal and the spiffy title vice-chair of the commission on youth and children, a position he volunteered for. "We all mingle so well because we truly believe we're all part of one family--Poly."
It hasn't always been that way. In the early '70s Poly was torn apart by a series of race riots, and in the wake of the violence there were discussions about shutting down the school. Instead, a new emphasis was put on creating a magnet program to attract academic overachievers and to foster unity. To eliminate racial prejudice the school began busing sophomores to the San Bernadino mountains every October for a weekend retreat featuring seminars and bonding experiences like evening hikes. These getaways remain an important part of the school's culture of inclusiveness.
Of course Poly is not immune to the realities of the surrounding mean streets. Since 2003 a memorial concert has been held for deceased students, and among the car-crash and drowning victims there has been a handful of kids lost to gang violence. Luckily for the school, that kind of warfare almost never plays out on campus. "This school is the star of the neighborhood. The people here are protective of it because they're so proud of it," says Ashley. "Three blocks away there might be some serious issues, but even the gangbangers respect what we're trying to do here."
Though Snoop Dogg often looks back wistfully in his rhymes about the Crips, the colors that command the most loyalty in central Long Beach are Jackrabbits green and gold, not blue and red. The school ties begin at an early age, with football a beacon for boys who might otherwise be drawn to the sort of violence that doesn't involve shoulder pads. Poly hosts a sprawling Pop Warner program, donating its playing fields and, oftentimes, its coaches. (Snoop regularly pays for equipment and uniforms.) By the time these kids reach high school, they have been indoctrinated in the Poly way, in which winning is important but hardly the only emphasis.
Among the strong father figures in the football program is head coach Raul Lara, Poly class of '84. (Seven of the school's 20 varsity head coaches are alums.) Lara moonlights as a Los Angeles County probation officer, and his football program is run with all the discipline that job title implies. Two avuncular assistants, Herman Davis and Don Norford, are among the most respected men in Long Beach's African-American community. They are close friends, who both graduated from Poly in 1964, and they have been imbued with a deep desire to give back to the school that has given them so much. "Our mission is not to make football players, it's to make men," says Norford, who in 1996 was named the national high school coach of the year by the NFL. "People on the outside think we only care about winning, but to us it's more important to build character, to teach right from wrong, to teach these kids to take responsibility, to teach them to reach out to each other."
In the wake of last December's tsunami, the football team organized a liftathon in which fellow students pledged 25 cents for each weight-room repetition. A check for nearly $200 was subsequently sent to the Red Cross. On a recent Saturday morning several football players were among the numerous Poly athletes who worked as volunteers at a community food drive held on campus.
This willingness to share is almost essential, given Poly's meager athletic facilities. The vast outfield of Tony Gwynn Field is the only decent-sized stretch of grass on the entire campus. (Gwynn, a 1977 Poly grad who went on to have a 20-year Hall of Fame career with the San Diego Padres, was a renowned singles hitter, and at his namesake park it's 495 feet to dead center, where centerfielder Desean Jackson runs down every fly ball.) Gwynn Field is used not only for baseball but also for football practice and soccer games. Football's annual foray deep into the sectional playoffs means that early-season soccer games are often rescheduled, and when the soccer team had a long postseason run this year, the varsity baseball team had to cede the field and cancel several home games.
There is plenty of inconvenience to go around. The swimming team has to use an off-campus public pool because Poly's is too small to accommodate all the swimmers. Meanwhile, the vaunted track teams practice on a dirt oval squeezed into a crowded corner of the campus; the straightaways are less than 80 yards long. When the cross-country runners set out from Poly, they dodge debris on cracked pavement for a mile and a half before encountering anything that resembles their sport's usual terrain. No wonder the boys' squad won five straight CIF sectional championships from 1996 to 2000. "If you can run your way out of this neighborhood, you can pretty much run anywhere," says coach Mike Fillipow.
This we-shall-overcome mind-set dominates Poly's collective psyche. In fact, students and coaches seem to take a perverse pride in their scrappy surroundings. Norford, who doubles as the boys' track and field coach, made a point of taking a visitor to see Poly's humble track. School had just let out for the day, and the campus was swarming with rowdy scholars and champions, but the dusty oval was deserted except for one buffed older gentleman toiling under an intense sun. Earl McCullough played six years as a wide receiver for the Detroit Lions in the late 1960s and early '70s, but he has come back to his alma mater to serve as an assistant track coach. As he painstakingly placed the hurdles, it was obvious that working at Poly is a labor of love.
After playfully heckling McCullough, Norford made a sweeping gesture that encompassed both the school and the sagging houses beyond it. "It's not much to look at, is it?" Norford said. "The only thing special about this place is the tradition and the kids. And the kids--they're more than a little special."
1 Tim Deng SENIOR Volleyball
2 Tava Tedesco JUNIOR Cross-country
3 Kazunori Miyahara SENIOR Water polo
4 Belinda Theam SENIOR Badminton
5 Sarah Beth Moore SENIOR Swimming
6 Travon Patterson JUNIOR Track and field
7 William Alo SENIOR Football
8 Kevin Buggs JUNIOR Basketball
9 Shana Woods JUNIOR Track and field
10 Amanda Salazar SENIOR Cross-country
11 Ethan Durham JUNIOR Cross-country
12 Taren Arnold SENIOR Volleyball
13 Terrence Austin JUNIOR Track and field
14 Desean Jackson SENIOR Football
15 Armando Arzate JUNIOR Baseball
16 Nikki Nomura SENIOR Soccer
17 Gabrielle Bournes SENIOR Track and field
18 Nhan Nguyen SENIOR Badminton
19 Gina Adamos JUNIOR Golf
20 April Phillips SENIOR Basketball
21 Kim Poblete SENIOR Tennis
22 Melissa Roth JUNIOR Softball
23 Brent Summers SENIOR Swimming
24 George Harris SENIOR Golf
25 Jasmine Dixon FRESHMAN Basketball
26 Alex Oberjuerge SENIOR Tennis
27 Heidi Boettger SENIOR Tennis
28 David Chlebowski SOPHOMORE Basketball
29 Tomer Konowiecki SENIOR Soccer
30 Kevin Castillo JUNIOR Baseball
31 Eric Kiel SENIOR Volleyball
32 Stephanie Mendez SENIOR Soccer
33 Sean Ducar SENIOR Water polo
34 Pierre Batton SENIOR Tennis
35 Lisa Follmuth SENIOR Volleyball
36 Samantha Jinadasa SENIOR Badminton
37 Patrick Trauber SENIOR Golf
38 Pedro Ramos SENIOR Cross-country
39 Ashley Parish SENIOR Water polo
40 Alfredo Manzo JUNIOR Wrestling
41 Jezreel Apelar JUNIOR Mascot
42 Samantha Phong SENIOR Golf
43 Andy Chin JUNIOR Wrestling
44 Briana George SENIOR Softball
45 Laura Simanonok SENIOR Water polo
46 Blaine Palsgrove SENIOR Swimming