Three years ago, New Trier East High School here inaugurated an "office education" course that provided instruction in typing and shorthand.
It was an acknowledged flop. Not enough students signed up for it, and this year the course was discontinued.
"I guess kids here just don't think of themselves as future secretaries," said teacher Louise Weiss.
Such a comment would hardly surprise midwesterners familiar with New Trier and the very special community it serves. As much as 93 percent of the graduating class each year goes on to college, and few of them want to become secretaries. On one recent school day, representatives of eight colleges were recruiting at the school. And in 1977, the head of an accreditation team that evaluated New Trier wrote in his report: "In my judgment, no school in America does a better job of preparing its students for college."
When college admissions officers are asked to name America's "good" high schools, they invariably mention New Trier. When national magazines write feature stories about the "lighthouse" schools -- the ones showing the way to others -- New Trier is usually on the list, along with a handful of high schools such as Walt Whitman in Bethesda, Md., Scarsdale outside New York City and Shaker Heights near Cleveland.
Yet the qualities that contribute to New Trier's reputation for excellence clearly could not be duplicated easily in most communities across America. New Trier's successes confirm what many educators in this country have always known: that schools reflect their communities, and when the communities are affluent ones that put a high value on achievement, success, competition and education itself, their children do well, at least by the definition of the majority of families that compose them.
Within the stately homes of Winnetka and its adjacent suburbs reside heads of corporations, high-powered Chicago lawyers and international bankers -- the people who make up what The Wall Street Journal has called America's "New Class." Television star Phil Donahue showed up for his son's graduation at New Trier last year in a Rolls Royce; insurance magnate W. Clement Stone can be seen riding the local highways in his gold-colored Cadillac. East of Green Bay Road, clustered along the shores of Lake Michigan, "old money" has ensconced itself in mansions surrounded by rolling lawns.
A University of Chicago sociologist, James P. Coleman, has called schools serving such communities "private schools financed with public funds." Tax rates and real estate costs, high enough to keep almost all but the affluent and successful out, tend to pre-select who goes to New Trier. Black enrollment at New Trier East usually runs between 15 and 20 students out of 3,150, and there are only one or two blacks enrolled at the sister school, New Trier West.
School officials do not entirely disagree with Coleman's definition. "There's a private school quality to the expectation for excellence that the community holds out for us," acknowledges Marilyn Olander, New Trier East's director of instructional services.
"We give them something of a college education here," she adds. "When they come back after college they tell us often that the work they're doing is almost laughable considering the challenge at New Trier."
Stories of precocity abound. One student several years ago scored "5," the top score, on all seven of the advanced placement courses he took. He entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology straight from New Trier -- as a junior.
New Trier East's math students have won the state math contest in five of the last 10 years. The school usually leads the state in National Merit Scholarship semifinalists. This year there were 27 -- children of a securities representative; a vice president for marketing, an advertising executive; district manager for the phone company; financial analyst; lawyers, bankers, doctors.
New Trier, some say, is run with all the efficiency of a big corporation that places a high premium on measurableresults. Yet, not even it has escaped the problems faced by other schools all over the country. Last week the community was stunned and disappointed when teachers walked off the job in the first strike in the district's history. School officials said that the main issue was pay, but a spokesman for the teachers association charged that the school board had come up with an "insulting" offer that would have slashed the benefits of veteran teachers and resulted in "second-class education" at New Trier.
In addition to these unaccustomed woes, school counselors and police officers attest that the youth of the community are as susceptible as kids elsewhere to negative influences, from drugs to venereal disease.
"Eighty to 90 percent of the kids here are good, healthy, red-blooded Americans," says school counselor Jim Wolf. "They're achievers in a very achieving community. But there are neglected kids, too. It comes through when I ask a kid 'what does your dad do?' and he says he doesn't know. Or when I ask when he and his dad get together and he replies that he just doesn't see him that much . . . so if you would ask me what kind of problems I primarily deal with, I would say depression and anger."
Winnetka Police Chief Herbert A. Timm puts it this way:
"The vast majority are damned decent kids. But we're not living on an island here. We have teen-age pregnancies and venereal disease. There's some feeling that we have a crisis in suicides on the North Shore, too, which I don't believe. But we see drug problems -- heroin, cocaine -- and alcohol, there's plenty of that around."
The chief, who acknowledges with a grin that we "have a reputation for being a Gestapo-like agency," says that the majority of local families support a strong police force which "doesn't pander to anybody." Still, it is parents who sometimes give him headaches.
"We have something here called the high pride factor," he says. "It's not unusual for us to come up against an attitude that says, 'What right do you have to tell us that?'" Timm can recall one father who dashed off from the police station where his son was being held on a drug charge to watch a football game on television, saying, "Just do what's necessary. I have to go."
"It's a very stressful community," says Timm. "It's hard on a kid to hear that daddy's been indicted or that the business has failed, but it does happen around here."
Outsiders often criticize New Trier as a privileged high school for rich kids.
Some of its success clearly can be attributed to the community's financial resources. The school district spends about $3,500 a year per student, the highest for any high school in Illinois. The money pays for an academic, sports and extracurricular program that would make almost any public school in America envious. The school has its own radio and television station, and offers a course in advanced Greek. Last year some students traveled to Italy for three weeks to study the Renaissance.
Yet qualities that are less definable than money clearly are among the ingredients that make New Trier special.
"Dissecting the chemistry of the school and the community isn't easy," says principal Ralph McGee. "It has a lot to do with the high value that people put on education."
Four years ago, for example, voters in the district turned out to overwhelmingly approve a stiff tax increase to maintain school programs in the face of inflation. This vote came at a time when communities across the country were rejecting new spending for schools.
"I've moved nine times and everytime my parents have gone to the area where the schools are the best," said a New Trier student. "For instance in Texas the schools were not as good because the real estate tax is not as high, so we gave up the size of our house for better schooling. Our parents know the value of a good eduction, of working for grades, of working to become successful and that's passed on to us. In some schools in the inner city where parents aren't as successful, they may not know the value of it [education]."
It is partly attitudes such as this that contribute to New Trier's "private school" qualities.
New Trier puts an emphasis on nurturing its youngsters that few public schools do. One expression of this is the unique "adviser" program, which adds about $200,000 a year to costs. Every entering freshman is assigned to a teacher-adviser who stays with the student for the full four years of high school. Advisers have been dubbed "the third parent," and some develop an intimate rapport with their 30 students, visiting their homes, monitoring academic progress and counseling on teenage problems. New Trier parents have been among the strongest supporters of the adviser system.
One adviser told how, after a young local girl was killed in a train accident, the adviser called together the students assigned to her so that "we could deal with the idea of a loss . . . as a function of growing up. We became much closer. Other girls in the group who didn't know [the victim] were very supportive of those who did."
The other side of New Trier's "private school" atmosphere in its intense competition.
"If your father is the executive of some major corporation the only way you can reach his level is to succeed, which means you get involved in clubs and sports," said a male student. "It's the only way you can become number one."
"Some people in this community are so upwardly mobile that there's nowhere left for them to go," acknowledges Olander. This drive for success is, inevitably, conveyed to the children of Winnetka.
Teachers say that the grouping of students by ability, on a scale of one to four, sometimes becomes an issue in the community. "Mothers playing bridge don't like to say their son is in math group two when they know their partner's kid is in group four," said one school official who feels that the pressures to achieve high grades come more from the community than from the school.
Whether the school is preparing young people for life as well as for college is a question that has been raised even by the evaluation team that praised the school in 1977.
The emphasis on academic achievement is so strong that students tend to shy away from alternative, unconventional programs. Enrollment is down in the Center for Self-Directed Learning, which is open to juniors and seniors who want to make up their own academic and job programs. The center's Bill Gregory thinks that is too bad for a lot of the school's "A" students.
"A couple of years ago we had a top girl student come into the program, and she was nervous all through senior year that she was 'missing' something, that she was falling behind in French.She didn't do that well in the center because she always had her nose stuck in two books at once and took a real intellectural view of things. But when she got to Smith College she wrote us that we'd helped her confront things in herself that she might never have."
Paul Olney, a young man with a mop of red hair who graduated from New Trier last year, took a different route from most of his classmates, and is not sorry. A self-described automobile "freak," he went to work in the local Volkswagen repair shop and says he is thriving. "I had some advantages that my classmates lacked," he said wryly. "My parents are not rich."
Yet for all the image of privilege that New Trier has, many of its students seem keenly, if not painfully, aware of their own fortune.
"Affluence sets the pace and gives us a lot of opportunities," said a girl. "But a lot of people kind of look down on us.They say 'it's just like New Trier to have a color yearbook.'"
Some teachers would like the kids to stop worrying about themselves and just accept the fact that they are fortunate young Americans in a fortunate community.
"A school is meant to serve a community," said Erwin Weingartner, director of student services. "This school is right for this commuinity. But it certainly wouldn't be right for every community."