Where 'Varsity Blues' Is Still Just a Movie: Top 15 L.A. Public High Schools for Hollywood Families

8:00 AM 8/18/2019

by Degen Pener

As the FBI exposes corrupt college admissions cheaters among wealthy showbiz families, The Hollywood Reporter spotlights these suddenly hot feeders for top universities looking for students "not being spoon-fed like in a private school."

Guy Shield

For entertainment industry folks of means, private schooling to the tune of $40,000 a year can seem like a de rigueur choice. "My wife works in the film business and she's often in a room where no one except her sends their kids to public school," a Los Angeles teacher tells The Hollywood Reporter. 

Even in the wake of the Operation Varsity Blues scandal, a number of education consultants say it's business as usual as Hollywood families keep kids on the private-school track, in hopes of procuring an elite college education (especially in the Ivy League, where acceptance rates run from 4.5 percent at Harvard to 10.6 percent at Cornell). Many industry parents also choose private because they want to send their kids to the same schools as families that they work and socialize with (or, in some cases, hope to work and socialize with).

But there may be a shift going on. Since March, when the federal college-bribery investigation broke, "parents have awakened to the legal and moral violations of manipulating their children's acceptance into college — and to the message to their kids that they're unable to get in on their own," says education consultant Betsy Brown Braun. And kids dependent on parents that snowplow away obstacles are not desirable college applicants. 

"The scandal has impacted the landscape," says public school consultant Tanya Anton, publisher of the GoMamaGuide to L.A schools. "People wonder, 'Will we look better coming from a public high school?' " Adds Nathalie Kunin, education consultant and founder of tutoring service Team Tutors: "Lots of parents meeting with me now are exploring for the first time moving from private to public. Varsity Blues has gotten people thinking about authenticity.”

And colleges are ready to embrace them. "There's an opportunity to see what's special about the student who is not being spoon-fed like in a private school," says Kunin. "They see these kids as self-advocates, leaders and able to navigate for themselves." Producer Doug Segal puts it succinctly (his daughter graduated this year from Palisades High): "In a public school, you don't have your hand held." And as an interviewer from an Ivy League school recently told Kirsten Hanson-Press, a Collegewise counselor: " 'Where we're doing all of our recruitment is in South Central.' "

Not that public-school students from the Westside aren't welcome. But looking for a showbiz-adjacent school anywhere in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) can be daunting. The second-largest district in the country, LAUSD includes more than 1,000 schools, with nearly 300 charter schools and 292 magnet programs, in which slots are won via a priority-points system. And there are 79 other school districts dotting Los Angeles County, such as the sought-after Beverly Hills, Culver City and Santa Monica-Malibu districts.

Other downsides: the lack of college counseling (according to two national counseling associations, the student-to-counselor ratio is 482:1) and class sizes that can reach the mid-40s. California spends only $11,500 per pupil, putting it 22nd out of 50 states. "It's absurd that our state and local property taxes don't provide adequate resources for the kids," says ICM agent Brad Schenck, who has a son at Laurel Canyon's Wonderland Elementary. (This November, there will be a state ballot initiative to reform Proposition 13. Under the proposal, commercial and industrial properties would be assessed every three years, instead of only when they are sold, and could raise $11 billion a year in taxes. Opponents claim it will hamper economic growth and be logistically difficult for counties to administer.)

For The Hollywood Reporter's list of the best L.A. public high schools for Hollywood families, education consultants and dozens of industry parents — many of whom can afford to send their kids to private schools — provided input. Schools were selected according to track records of getting kids into elite colleges and also by proximity to most entertainment companies. That means that many great schools are left out which are located in the far west Valley (such as Westlake High, Calabasas High, Woodland Hills’ Taft Charter, Oak Park High, West Hills’ El Camino Real Charter); to the northeast (La Canada High, San Marino High, Crescent Valley High, South Pasadena High, Burbank High, Burbank’s Burroughs High) and the South Bay (Palos Verdes High, Redondo Union, Carson’s California Academy of Mathematics and Science, Torrance’s South High, Hawthorne Math and Science Academy, El Segundo High, Manhattan Beach’s Mira Costa High). Also not included, as the primary goal isn’t college prep, are the area’s top performing arts schools: L.A. County High School for the Arts, Renaissance Arts Academy, the Ramon C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts, and CHAMPS Charter High School for the Arts. This list also leaves out a number of LAUSD’s big comprehensive high schools, many that have great magnet programs but most of which are still improving, places like Venice High (which is undergoing an $111 million renovation), University High, Fairfax High, Franklin High and Hamilton High (which has a strong performing arts program).

One school to watch out for is the impressive Science Academy STEM Magnet in North Hollywood. For two years running, it had the highest scores in the entire state for grades 6 to 8 in English, math and English/math combined. But it has yet to graduate a senior class and is just adding a 10th-grade class this year.

“We have more choices here in L.A. Unified probably than anywhere else in the country,” says Anton, “from specialized academies and magnets to charters and neighborhood schools — it’s really about finding the right fit.” Adds Ivywise CEO Kat Cohen, “Every student can be competitive in the admissions process if they know what they are looking for and aren’t afraid to take full advantage of their school’s resources.”

 

  • Beverly Hills High School

    241 Moreno Drive, Beverly Hills

    Beverly Hills High School is in the middle of a multiyear, $150 million modernization.
    Beverly Hills High School is in the middle of a multiyear, $150 million modernization.
    Courtesy of Subject

    Its famous Swim Gym (a gym that converts into a pool) appeared in It’s a Wonderful Life. Alicia Silverstone’s Cher in Clueless was a student there. And famed alumni include Betty White, Max Mutchnick, Angelina Jolie, Nicolas Cage and Barry Diller, but this public school has been grappling with declining enrollment, from 2,400 kids in 1974 to 1,262 today. "Because of the proliferation of private schools, Beverly Hills is in the unfamiliar position of competing," says Four Weddings and a Funeral executive producer Jonathan Prince, a public-school proponent who attended, as did his son. “The kids who can thrive in public school can thrive anywhere,” he adds. Still, the school (which boasts recent acceptances at Harvard, Princeton, Brown and Cornell) offers a rigorous curriculum with 18 AP classes, foreign-language courses in Spanish, French and Hebrew and a new partnership with West L.A. College for university-level classes. "My kids have thoughtful teachers who really engage with them," says managing director of investment management company Oakmont Corporation and former Saban Capital CFO Fred Gluckman. Not as diverse as most of the schools on this list, Beverly Hills High is 73 percent white, 8 percent Latinx, 3 percent African American and 13 percent Asian. Adds Prince, “There are a huge array of extracurriculars and cultural opportunities, from theater, music and graphics arts to the newspaper and even a TV station, where you can learn to be an editor or be on camera.” Beyond that, what Prince loves about Beverly Hills High is that it’s a true neighborhood school “where your kid’s best friends are a mere bike ride away.” The school — which has been in the news for its more than $15 million legal battle fighting the extension of the Purple Line subway which would run underneath the campus — is in the midst of a multiyear, $150 million modernization of its campus that will continue through 2021 and will add classrooms, a new media center and college and career centers.

  • Cleveland Humanities Magnet

    8140 Vanalden Ave., Reseda

    The Grover Cleveland Charter campus will undergo a $138 million update, adding classrooms and a performing arts center.
    The Grover Cleveland Charter campus will undergo a $138 million update, adding classrooms and a performing arts center.
    Courtesy of Subject

    Founded in 1981, the magnet school referred to as Core focuses on writing and cross-disciplinary studies around themes like world cultures and American studies seen through the lens of race, class and gender. The program, which includes about two dozen AP classes, encompasses 880 students, a subset of around 3,100 at mother school Grover Cleveland Charter. About 600 kids apply each year for 220 ninth-grade openings. Says voice actor Nickie Bryar (Family Guy): "With Core, my child is able to broaden her understanding of the world and learn about people from all areas. The teachers I’ve found are by far some of the most engaged, caring and involved people out there.” The student body is 39 percent white, 28 percent Latinx, 4 percent African American and 25 percent Asian, and the 2019 senior class had acceptances to Columbia, Harvard, Princeton and Yale. The high school is undergoing a $190 million modernization that will add two new classroom buildings and a new performing arts center.

  • Culver City High School

    4401 Elenda St., Culver City

    Courtesy of Subject

    Supported by a partnership with Sony since 1993, the Culver City Unified School District high school is known for its after-school Academy of Visual and Performing Arts. "Film students do their spring screening series in the fanciest theater at Sony," says director Dan Mirvish, who has one child attending and another who graduated and is at UC Berkeley. “And when the theater department needs any period costumes, Sony donates them from their wardrobe department.” The 2,230 student body is 26 percent white, 38 percent Latinx, 17 percent African American and 10 percent Asian. The well-rounded school has 21 sports teams, 19 AP courses, technical courses in sports medicine, architectural design, theatrical production and I.T., and more than 80 student clubs. The city (where HBO, Amazon and Apple are opening offices) is putting money into education, recently completing a $16.3 million renovation of the high school’s landmark midcentury modern Robert Frost Auditorium and adding a two-story science building. Another plus, says Elaine Behnken, executive producer at commercial production company Gartner, whose son graduated there and is now attending UCSB’s College of Creative Studies: “Because Culver City is a smaller school district, kids build lifelong friendships. They go through school together all the way from kindergarten to high school. And if you have the security of friends, you tend to do well in school.” The most recent graduating class won slots at Cornell, Yale and Harvard.

  • Da Vinci Schools

    201 N. Douglas St., El Segundo

    Courtesy of Gensler

    Located two miles south of LAX in a former Northrop Grumman office building (which underwent a $160 million renovation completed in 2017), Da Vinci's main campus comprises three charter high schools, each with about 525 students focusing on real-world learning in the fields of architecture and graphic design, communications and engineering. The project-based, career-focused school (within the Wiseburn Unified School District) has partnerships with such nearby companies as YouTube, Chevron, Boeing, Gensler, Belkin, ad agency 72andSunny and SpaceX, and links with Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, UCLA, El Camino College, and Southern New Hampshire University for college-level courses. "Da Vinci has no football team but the robotics team is the big thing. Last year, Da Vinci's robotics team won the championships," says Raleigh Enterprises executive corporate director of finance Robert Schubert, who has a son starting senior year at Da Vinci Science. “He’s really interested in mechanical engineering and it’s been an amazing experience for him. The teachers seem to relate to the kids really well. It’s definitely made him college ready.” The student population is 17 percent white, 54 percent Latinx, 14 percent African American and 4 percent Asian, and 43 percent of kids qualify for free or reduced-cost meals. Since graduating its first senior class in 2012, it has had admittances at Dartmouth, Columbia, Harvard and Yale.

  • Girls Academic Leadership Academy

    1067 West Blvd., Mid-Wilshire

    Courtesy of Subject

    Opened in 2016, Girls Academic Leadership Academy (GALA) is the only all-girls STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) school in LAUSD and the state. "Only 7 percent of women and 4 percent of women of color go into STEM fields. GALA was created to give public school girls an opportunity to break that barrier," says actress Susan Leslie, who has a daughter at the school, which covers grades 6 to 12 (with 585 students total) and will graduate its first senior class next year. "After our principal, Dr. Elizabeth Hicks, had two children at private all-girls school Marlborough, she thought, 'Why don't we have a public school like this?' She spent four years getting it started." GALA, which requires uniforms and is co-located on the Los Angeles High School campus, is 30 percent white, 32 percent Latinx, 25 percent black and 10 percent Asian. The college-prep school has 17 AP classes, a rocketry club, a maker space, flight simulators, an a capella group and an afterschool Shakespeare program. “Generally, in elementary school, girls outperform boys in science and math,” says Leslie. “In middle school, the boys start to take over; a lot of the girls don’t want to appear smart. And in high school, a lot of girls don’t even take the classes. In an all-girls school, they have the freedom to be smart and expand who they are without worrying about other distractions.” Last year, GALA received 550 applications, which require a teacher letter of recommendation, for about 150 spots.

  • Granada Hills Charter

    10535 Zelzah Ave., Granada Hills

    One of the largest independent charter schools in the U.S., with 5,000 students, this school offers 60-plus clubs, 21 sports teams, 29 AP courses and an International Baccalaureate program on its 34-acre campus in the north Valley. A conversion charter school — meaning that it was an existing public school that went charter (in 2003) — Granada admits a mix of residents and kids who enter a lottery, which sees more than 2,000 applicants for about 400 seats. TV producer Lisa Bacon (who has two kids at the school and two who graduated) says, "It's fantastic how many different ethnicities and traditions there are." Demographics are 24 percent white, 38 percent Latinx, 4 percent African American and 17 percent Asian. The 2019 senior class won spots at seven out of eight Ivies. The school dominates at the U.S. Academic Decathlon, where it has won seven titles in the last nine years.

  • John Marshall High School

    3939 Tracy St., Los Feliz

    Opened in 1931, John Marshall stands out among LAUSD's many comprehensive high schools. Known for its Gothic building, which appeared in Pretty in PinkGrosse Pointe Blank and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it enrolls about 2,380 students and houses a highly gifted magnet school (around 330 kids apply for 115 openings a year), a school of advanced studies and a school of environmental studies, and programs devoted to sports medicine, and stage and recording studio production. It provides 20 AP classes, 16 sports teams, an award-winning Academic Decathlon team, and excels in music offerings (from orchestra and jazz to rock and songwriting). "You really get that big high school experience, from homecoming to the baseball team playing in the city finals at Dodger Stadium," says writer-editor Sophia Nardin. She and her husband, Beats by Dre president Luke Wood, have a daughter there who attended a private middle school and wanted a change. “She felt she’d really been living in a bubble,” says Nardin. “She wanted to experience something bigger and more diverse and it’s turned out to be a really good experience for her. It’s more like L.A.” The student body is 16 percent white, 58 percent Latinx, less than 1 percent African American and 13 percent Asian, and 74 percent of kids qualify for a free or reduced priced lunch. One gripe: the large class sizes. "The teachers may have less time to give to each student, but they are every bit as dedicated, knowledgeable and caring," counters Nardin. In 2018, students in the senior class won acceptances to Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth and Yale.

  • LACES

    5931 W. 18th St., Mid-City

    Courtesy of Subject

    Launched as LAUSD's first magnet in 1977, Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies (LACES), is a pro at college-prep education. The 1,600-student, 6th-to-12th-grade school offers a very rigorous, at times highly competitive, environment where the average student completes seven AP courses, with a total of 26 APs on offer — just two fewer than private school Harvard-Westlake. The students are 29 percent white, 32 percent Latinx, 21 percent black and 17 percent Asian, and 57 percent quality for the free or reduced-priced lunch program. "It reflects everything that's good about public education," says Tracy Abbott, a former TV writer and producer. She and her husband, producer Charlie Cook, have a son attending. Abbott cautions that football isn’t a reason to attend: “We don’t have a team.” While LACES has been adding more in the way of arts programs and other sports in recent years, the primary draw is academic pursuits. "My kid is in his first year at an Ivy, and he said LACES was harder," says one industry parent. Located in a former middle school built in the 1930s, LACES (which Leonardo DiCaprio briefly attended) sees about 2,600 applicants for 240 sixth-grade slots. Parent support is high: The parent group Friends of LACES raises about $300,000 a year.

  • Larchmont Charter

    2801 W. 6th St., Westlake

    "Not every kid has the same approach to learning, and at Larchmont, they let them do whatever their approach is," says Paddy Cullen, vp production at Warner Bros. Television (her daughter attends). Her child was previously in a parochial school, but left because it was “too rote and traditional.” By contrast at Larchmont, “they might have a history lesson but they will act it out or do a song about it,” says Cullen. Adds acting teacher Marcia Tillman, wife of The Hate U Give director George Tillman Jr.: "Our son really benefits from a hands-on approach, rather than just being lectured to." Located in a converted office building across from Lafayette Park, the high school — which had acceptances at Brown and Yale in 2019 and offers 11 AP classes — is beloved for the constructivist learning approach, spoken-word program and its intimate feeling (just 433 kids). The students are 25 percent white, 31 percent Latinx, 5 percent black and 28 percent Asian, and 53 percent of kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. One of the city's most selective (out of 2,050 kids who applied this year, 241 won spots), the high school, which graduated its first senior class in 2016, is said to lack robust athletics ("They do P.E. at the park," says Cullen).

  • Malibu High School

    30215 Morning View Dr., Malibu

    After the Woolsey Fire last fall, Malibu High lost 23 days of school, but 100 percent of the senior class of 150 graduated, with two kids accepted to Dartmouth and Princeton. Located a block from the Pacific Ocean, the school, where students are 84 percent white, offers 14 AP classes and fields teams in 21 sports (including equestrian and surfing, neither sponsored by Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District). WME partner Gaby Morgerman, who has had two kids graduate, says that, contrary to perception, "the school is very grounded. Teachers and staff truly care about the students beyond academics, as was especially [evident] during the hardships we all endured during the fires. The close-knit community really gets behind the school and students.” The campus is adding classrooms, a new library, science labs and two computer labs, and a new classroom building for Malibu Middle School, made from shipping containers and located on the same campus, is opening for this school year.

  • New West Charter

    1905 Armacost Ave., Sawtelle

    The building feels "like you are in a creative advertising agency in Santa Monica. It’s a bow-and-truss building with exposed brick," says Lifetime vp movies Sebastian Dungan, who has a daughter there. He praises the independent charter school, which graduated its first senior class in 2016, as "academically demanding," with small grade sizes. The uniforms-required 6th-to-12th-grade school (with around 1,015 students) has an honors program and what Dungan calls a “fantastic” dance program, but no AP courses. “They believe in rigorous academics but they don’t believe in teaching to the test,” says a parent. Adds Dungan, “It’s fairly traditional in the sense that they are really academically focused and there are no excuses if your homework is late. They are really unforgiving with deadlines for parents as well.” Athletics are limited, with some teams practicing at nearby Stoner Park. The student body is 50 percent white, 27 percent Latinx, 7 percent black and 6 percent Asian. The senior class saw placements this year at Brown and Cornell.

  • Palisades Charter

    15777 Bowdoin St., Pacific Palisades

    The facility by the sea has a "beautiful pool and football field. Almost every classroom is accessible from the outside," says author and producer Doug Segal, whose daughter, now at Trinity College, attended Pali. While they sent their son to Buckley, the couple moved to the Palisades from Hollywood specifically for their daughter to attend Pali. “She said, 'I want more diversity. I want a bigger class,'” says Segal. A conversion charter, the school gives preference to residents first; kids outside the Palisades are chosen by lottery. This makes the high school more diverse than its neighborhood, with a demo of 60 percent white, 20 percent Latinx, 12 percent African American and 8 percent Asian. The school (around 2,900) boasts 23 AP classes, a new film program, 20 sports teams, 100-plus clubs, and surf class as part of P.E. In 2019, the senior class saw acceptances at seven out of the eight Ivies. “We had a great experience at the school. Every aspect about it: academically, socially, athletically. My kids were challenged,” says Dan Brecher of the Rothman Brecher Ehrich Livingston Agency, who has two kids who've graduated from Pali, both of whom are at the University of Michigan. He adds that there’s “not a lot of hand-holding. For some parents, that’s a concern. Frankly for my wife and I, that’s the benefit of public school, because that’s the real world.” Famous alumni include will.i.am and J.J. Abrams, who modeled his Maz Kanata Star Wars character after a Pali English teacher.

  • Santa Monica High School

    601 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica

    In 2021, a three-story Discovery Building will open at 26-acre SaMo High with 38 classrooms, science and computer labs, an Olympic-size pool and a rooftop classroom focusing on STEAM (just add arts to STEM) coursework; it will join a $55 million Innovation Building, which includes 15 science labs, which opened in 2015. "It's a very large school," says producer Jake Wachtel (department chair of digital arts and production at International Technical University), who has a kid at the 2,856-student site, which recently was the rally site for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. "My daughter is self-motivated, so it's the perfect situation for her." In the '80s, Rob Lowe, Sean Penn, Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen roamed the halls. Today, the school has 21 APs, 26 sports teams, 125-plus clubs, and strong orchestra and theater programs. “I just felt like my children weren’t coddled, and I think that’s the beginning of an education — to not have a silver spoon shoved in your mouth,” says interior designer Kathryn M. Ireland, who sent her three sons there. “My kids were good all-arounders and they all went to really good colleges.” The students are 40 percent white, 35 percent Latinx, 8 percent black and 7 percent Asian, and approximately 26 percent of students qualify for the free or reduced-price lunch program. The school enjoys a partnership with nearby Santa Monica College. The most recent senior class earned admittances to Brown, Columbia, Cornell, UPenn and Yale.

  • SOCES

    18605 Erwin St., Reseda

    The Valley’s answer to LACES, the Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies (SOCES) is actually in Reseda, offering 18 AP courses including computer science and studio art. Because the school runs from 4th to 12th grade, with just 250 kids per grade, parents say long-lasting friendships are formed and there’s a feeling of close-knit community. “SOCES starts in 4th grade, which is a real plus because middle school can be really challenging as far as bullying. The students here can become friends before those adolescent years,” says parent Debra Lewin. She and her husband, stunt coordinator Todd Schneider, have two kids at the school. Adds Corporate production designer Dina Lipton, whose twins just graduated from there (one is at Vassar, the other is studying marine biology at Florida’s Eckard College): "They do a good job balancing excellent academics with extracurriculars," such as an engineering and robotics team that became national champions in 2018, and a strong band program. The magnet school, which receives 1,750 applications from throughout the city for 250 openings, has a student body that's 41 percent white, 35 percent Latinx, 4 percent African American and 15 percent Asian. Fifty-five percent of the students are from low-income families. “That’s why we wanted to do public school,” says Lipton. “We wanted our kids to get a real-life view as opposed to living in a little protected bubble.” A sometimes complaint: Some kids don’t feel like they're getting a true high-school experience because of the small size of the school and the presence of lower grades. In 2018, there were 11 acceptances at UCLA and nine at Berkeley. The campus is undergoing a $103 million renovation that will see new buildings for science classes and elementary students and a new gym. Lipton also praises the school’s concurrent-enrollment program with Los Angeles Pierce College in Woodland Hills, allowing high school students to earn college credit for their classes.

  • Valley International Preparatory

    20801 Vintage St., Chatsworth

    Courtesy of Subject

    The faculty, formed out of charter iLead NoHo's closure, has helped kids into Columbia, Brown, Yale and Dartmouth in the past few years. VIP's speech and debate team has had four national champions and was recently ranked No. 2 in the U.S. Blending rigorous standards with progressive approaches (such as project-based and constructivist learning), the curriculum includes eight AP classes, one-on-one advisory periods, and individualized learning plans and college counseling. Says Alex Weingarten, an entertainment lawyer at Venable, whose daughter started there after Buckley, "VIP really feels like the best parts of a private school: a small community, passionate teachers and outstanding academics, and she’s really gotten a lot out of the college-counseling experience.” Located at Chatsworth High, the school (currently with 265 students) plans to move into its own facility in 2021 in Northridge with a target enrollment of 400, according to executive director Anne Cochran, a former entertainment-industry marketing executive.

    A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.