Growing pains

By Alice Phillips and Daniel Rothberg

“She did not see it as a merger or even as an offensive takeover but rather as a rape.”

When then-Headmaster of Harvard School Thomas C. Hudnut went to the North Faring Road campus to discuss the merger of Harvard and Westlake schools, he was met with a hostile crowd. A Westlake mother marched up and down the aisles of the Marshall Center carrying a sign that bore one word: rape.

“Actually that embarrassed many in the audience to move them from hostility to indifference,” Hudnut said.

Yet despite the initial outrage and a lawsuit against both Harvard and Westlake schools for violating their charters by merging, fewer than 10 students from both schools left before Harvard-Westlake opened its doors in the fall of 1991, Hudnut said.

But Harvard-Westlake’s challenges weren’t all thrown out in the chambers of Superior Court Judge Miriam Vogel.

“What if half the faculty quit?” Hudnut said. “What if we couldn’t afford it? What if? What if?”

Merging Harvard and Westlake meant reconciling differences in tuition ($8,350 at Harvard vs. $7,750 at Westlake), in facilities and in pedagogy.

“There was some skepticism,” Chief Financial Officer Rob Levin said. “Are the girls just going to get steamrollered?”

However, for those entrenched in merger drama, concerns and challenges like these were nothing more than a distraction from what the marriage could and would eventually achieve.

“It was very clear at the time of the merger that they were trying really hard to prove themselves,” Chief Advancement Officer Ed Hu said. “As someone on the outside, I knew the quality of Harvard and I knew the quality of Westlake. I had a good sense that once the schools merged it created this whole mega-school.”

At the time of the merger, Hu was working as the Associate Director of Admissions at Brown University. Hu would leave his post at Brown to begin working at the newly merged school as a college counselor in June 1994.

 

Great expectations
“Tom Hudnut’s focus over the last 20 years has been to build a school that is excellent across the board, like a Stanford,” Director of Admissions Elizabeth Gregory, who began working at Westlake School in 1970, said.

Immediately following the merger, administrators sought to create a school that emphasized excellence in all facets of student life.

“Stanford was able to play in the academic leagues with Harvard, Yale and Princeton and in the athletic leagues with Cal, UCLA and USC,” Hudnut said. “It was out there showing that you can pursue a variety of aspects of school life at a high level, and that’s what we wanted to do.”

But excellence came at a cost. In order to achieve their vision, the newly merged school was saddled with the task of making resources equitable on each campus.

“You had [choral director Jayne] Campbell [at the Upper School], but you had to hire a [Nina] Burtchell [at the Middle School] that wasn’t on the payroll before,” Levin said. “Every place you had one great person, you had to have two. Just to take the existing programs, each of which had been available to 700 or 800 kids and make it available to everybody, you had to double some things.”

Even as Harvard-Westlake graduates its 20th class in June, the search for excellence is ongoing.

“Five years ago, our baseball team had just come off of two consecutive seasons where we didn’t win a single Mission League game,” Head of Athletics Audrius Barzdukas said. “Now, we just won our first Mission League championship in school history.”

However, the path toward excellence can be a double-edged sword. While the baseball team, like others, has finally seized tangible success, players have had to make sacrifices along the way.

Recently, a baseball player told Head of School Harry Salamandra that he puts in more practice time than a professional ballplayer.

“So it’s tough,” Salamandra said. “It’s not just in sports. It’s all around in other extracurriculars. If you look at what we’re doing on the stage, you look at our debate program, no matter what area we talk about at this school, we’re at such a high level already. It didn’t used to be that way. Unfortunately, there’s a price you pay for everything. I do think too much scheduled time is not a good thing.”

Vice President John Amato, who began teaching at Harvard School in 1978, believes a culture of excellence is more beneficial than not to Harvard-Westlake.

“Excellence is a good thing and mediocrity is a bad thing,” he said. “And if everyone is mediocre here and relaxed, I don’t want to be here.”

Yet, as has proved true in the past, perpetuating a culture of excellence is no easy feat.

“I’ve always said that maintaining excellence is as time-consuming and difficult and as much a challenge as creating excellence in the first place,” Head of School Jeanne Huybrechts said.

Harvard-Westlake Inc.
With construction work on the Middle School nearly complete, attention has shifted to perfecting facilities on the upper school campus. Administrators acknowledged the Upper School’s need for more field space, more parking space, new performing arts facilities, a student center and better classrooms.

Field space is scarce in Los Angeles, but so is time available for sitting in Los Angeles’ traffic, Barzdukas said.

“Include as many fields as possible in any master plan,” the Athletic Department said as part of a 2008 report, which outlined the infrastructural needs and desires of each upper school department. “Do anything and everything to reduce the need for transporting students away from the upper school campus to an off-site practice facility.”

“Are there ways we can keep kids here?” Barzdukas said. “Whether that’s going up, down or sideways, how do we make that happen?”

The Athletic Department is not the only group on campus lacking facilities.

“Quite simply, Performing Arts has a shortage of just about everything,” Director of Upper School Master Planning John Feulner said.

In completing the Middle School modernization project, Harvard-Westlake built what Hudnut called “probably the best theater in Los Angeles,” the Saperstein Theater, but several administrators have noted the shortage of adequate performing arts facilities at the Upper School.

“The bottom floor of Chalmers is pretty grim,” Hudnut said.

Also high on the administration’s wish list of future projects is a new student center.

“The lounge used to be as big as all of what’s there now, plus all of the deans’ offices,” Huybrechts said.

The 2008 construction report identified the desire for a student center that would “foster ‘one-stop shopping’ for general student needs.”

 ”Until we work out a few central ideas and get a number of fundamental questions answered, which takes a considerable amount of time, we can’t plan out the campus,” Feulner said. 

A bridge to somewhere?
In October 1997, Hudnut told The Chronicle of hopes to construct a bridge to a proposed athletic field on property across Coldwater Canyon Avenue. The athletic field was never completed.

Today, the school owns about six acres of land on the opposite side of Coldwater from the campus, Feulner said.

Up until last week, two homes sat on the land, one of which was the residence of physical education teacher Amy Bird.

“We didn’t want squatters,” Director of Campus Operations JD DeMatté said. “It was a fair house at best. I want to say sub-par, but [Bird and her husband] made it into a livable place for the time that they were here. Our decision… was to remove both houses because it was just a burden.”

More than 13 years after discussion began about building a bridge across Coldwater and an athletic field on the property, the school is still exploring options for the land in the long-term.

“The school is eyeing that with the thought of how we can use it,” Feulner said.

Feulner noted several possible impediments to a future project on the land, including the high-profile nature of such a project, the physical challenges posed by building on a mountainside and the logistical challenges of transporting students across Coldwater. 

“If you are going to use the land, you would have to build a bridge,” Feulner said.