Emerging Elitism

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

As a former public school principal, he knows there'd be no way to accomplish that in a county school. (For the purpose of comparison, a Broward School District task force announced last May that the infrastructure of Dillard High School was falling apart, and it's still holding meetings to decide what to do about it.)

There are other telling differences between public and private schools. High-school classes at American Heritage contain no more than 16 students, and often far fewer. Catherine Bachman, who was co-valedictorian last year, recalls a meeting with advisors at the beginning of her senior year, in which they asked her what courses she wanted to take that year. When she came up with a couple ideas for courses the school had never offered, administrators went ahead and created them -- custom-designed them just for her and a couple other top students who also expressed interest. In one of her classes, an upper-level Spanish course, she was the only student in the class.

How many students at public high schools get a one-to-one student-teacher ratio? None at South Plantation High, where the combined 1997 SAT scores averaged 40 points lower than at American Heritage.

But then it's superstar students like Catherine Bachman who hold the key to success for ambitious private schools like American Heritage. Without a reputation for placing graduates in top colleges, a school that charges nine grand a student is going to have a hard time filling its classrooms. With Bachman's grades and accomplishments, she had a shot at getting into a top Ivy League university and in fact was accepted at Cornell University, the only one to which she applied. (Eventually she opted to take a scholarship package put together by the University of Miami.)

Parents do pay attention. Last year Katrina Zalewsky, a doctor with two children at American Heritage, tried to convince her daughter, Magdalene, to leave there and go to Pine Crest instead. Why? "I talked to a recruiter from Harvard," Zalewsky says, "And she had not heard of American Heritage School."

Although the curriculum is designed for college placement -- offering advanced placement courses in English, French, Spanish, calculus, American history, economics, government, biology, chemistry, and physics -- compared to Pine Crest, "they've got a ways to go," says Moses, the educational consultant. American Heritage parent Dorre White says the quality of the hard-sciences curriculum especially could stand some improvement. "Their fine arts and drama departments are topnotch, but they could stand to work on their academics."

Magdalene Zalewsky is, in fact, another Catherine Bachman in the making -- that is to say, another student whom any private school would want on its campus. Just 14 years old, she speaks three languages (English, Polish, and German), plays basketball, and has an air of calm maturity that belies her years. (In the end, she decided to stay at American Heritage to stay with her friends.)

Of course the big losers in the competition for top students like Zalewsky and Bachman are the public schools, which miss out on the positive influences such serious and mature students can bring. In Bachman's junior year at American Heritage, "I took a psychology course at Broward Community College, and I was amazed! People in the class could not write!"

Although 14-year-old sophomore Nicole Szary lives two doors down from Magdalene Zalewsky and across the street from the American Heritage campus, Nicole has never gone to that school. Has she ever thought about applying to American Heritage? With a small shrug, she replies, "No, it's not really my style." For one thing she likes her Tommy Hilfiger jeans too much. They'd be banned at American Heritage. "I'm happy where I'm at."

It's just as well. "I can't afford American Heritage," says her mother. Her husband, Walter, is nearing retirement after a 20-year career as a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, and Cheryl works full-time as a telephone solicitor to help make ends meet. Now she faces the prospect of having her house face the rear of an 800-seat performing arts center. In the meantime continued opposition against such a powerful foe has taken a toll on Cheryl Szary. "I just want [Laurie] to buy our house, and we'll leave. He can have it. I've told him that," she says.

Bill Laurie says he has no interest in buying Cheryl Szary's house. It's on the wrong side of the street.

Szary lives on the south side of SW Second Street, a dead-end road just south of campus. Laurie says he'd eventually like to buy up the whole north side of the street, and if you look at a zoning map, it's not hard to see why. That line of plats marks the only blemish in what would otherwise be a perfectly square piece of property owned by the school and extending from the street to the C-1 canal.

He's already bought one of those houses, and the circumstances of the purchase says something about the way he operates. Last May, while the city council was pondering a school request for a permit to construct a performing arts center the back side of which would face SW Second Street, the council received a letter from one Larry Miller.

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