Emerging Elitism

American Heritage School survives despite near financial collapse, angry neighbors, and a questionable relationship with a Plantation politician

There's something off kilter about the cover of the brochure for the elite private academy known as the American Heritage School, and at first it's hard to pinpoint what the problem is, exactly.

The cover design is plain to a fault -- just a simple, oblique-view photograph of the front of the main campus administration building on a sunny day, with a black bar running across the top of the page and the name of the school spelled out in gold. Overall, it's nothing flashy, nothing head-turning, unless your head is easily turned by neoclassical stodginess.

Then it hits you -- it's that tree. That tree in the foreground. That tree is strangely... leafless.

Also frondless. That's no palm tree, nor is it a melaleuca or an Australian pine or any other kind of tree that would offer a clue to the school's location in the heart of South Florida. What that is, is an oak tree. Suddenly you realize that, other than the sunshine, nothing in the photograph seems to have anything to do with South Florida.

A half-day tour of the actual campus (conducted in a nifty electric golf cart driven by school founder and president Bill Laurie) strengthens one's sense of geographic dislocation. Not only are there no palm trees visible in the heart of this 35-acre campus, there are no Day-Glo colors, no Art Deco flourishes, no buildings constructed in the style of Mediterranean villas -- in short, nothing that would give a visitor any impression of actually being in Broward County.

It's not as if the school couldn't afford to dress itself up and put on some South Florida style. With 1800 students from kindergarten through 12th grade paying an average annual tuition of $8700 each, it's making money. Laurie has spent an estimated $10 million in the past five years on new construction for the private school, and he's not done yet. (Next up: a performing arts center that will seat 800 people, which is more than even Parker Playhouse can hold.)

And while Laurie likes to boast that he lets parents work off their bills by serving as teachers' aides, you can bet you won't find American Heritage parents like Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne or state Democratic Party chief Mitch Caesar clapping erasers for discounts. Anyway, the budget is based on an expectation that at least 90 percent of students will bring in the full retail tuition rate.

So if Bill Laurie wanted palm trees, he could afford them. Instead, he's constructed his campus in a dry, spinsterish Colonial style that one imagines would make Sam Adams feel right at home. The administration building (the one featured on the brochure cover), for instance, sports a 15-foot-deep portico the outer facing of which consists of a huge wooden triangle supported by four commanding white Greek Corinthian columns. The windows are set off by old-fashioned square wooden shutters. The construction materials are red brick and white-painted wood.

Seeing this Williamsburg museum gift shop of a building basking in the Florida sunshine provokes the sort of cognitive dissonance you'd imagine by hearing Jimmy Buffett play at a Harvard convocation. But then when you learn of the school's history of financial dealings, nasty feuds, and political intrigue, you feel better. There's a little South Florida in the place after all.

To hear Bill Laurie tell it, there's a simple reason his school buildings are built this way. "I really like brick," he says. No surprise there; he also likes solid yet outmoded blue blazers with shiny gold buttons and old-fashioned rimless glasses with lenses tinted a strange, archaic yellow.

"That classical image -- like a New England campus, like Harvard -- that's his style," says Paul Tavilla, Laurie's former business partner and the parent of two children currently attending the school.

But of course there's more to the choice of building materials than simple preference. "All the Colonial architecture is meant to convey a sense of tradition, conservatism," says former student Catherine Bachman. "It also tells you that this is a serious place."

The place certainly seems serious enough. "They have drug dogs come in while you're sitting in class and come down each row sniffing your backpack," says Ericka Krupka, a 14-year-old ninth grader. "If there are troublemakers, they get rid of them."

Non-troublemakers are issued photo identification cards ("to be carried at all times, to be presented upon demand," warns the student/parent handbook) and required to adhere to a strict dress code. Shirts must be "regulation cotton-knit (red, black, or white with Heritage logo)". Socks must also be "red, white, or black" (no logo required). Hats are out. As for trousers, "the 'baggy' look is not in keeping with our traditional, conservative look."

The dress code is a visual reflection of a philosophical approach that disdains fads in favor of tried-and-true methods, says upper-school Principal Patricia A. Butts, who has been Laurie's partner at the school since 1982. At American Heritage, children are taught to read phonetically, not ebonically. Grades are based on the traditional letter scale that skips directly from D to F. There is no "E" for effort on the report card.

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