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Parents Seeking To Block Merger of L.A. Schools

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Two of the West Coast's preeminent private, single-sex schools are forging ahead with their plans to merge next fall, despite heated opposition from some parents who like things the way they are.

The Westlake School for Girls of Los Angeles, a highly regarded private girls' school, and the equally prominent, all-male Harvard School of nearby Studio City have agreed to merge, becoming what some supporters suggest would be a "superschool" that could rival the best private schools in the East.

The decision was first announced Oct. 3, and was quickly followed by a torrent of debate and letter-writing, a lawsuit, and other legal maneuverings by angry Westlake parents seeking to block the merger.

"I felt very betrayed," said Beau Lavine, one of four Westlake mothers who filed suit seeking to stop the merger. "I was sold on the idea of a girls' school for my daughter."

In the latest maneuver, Karen Kaplowitz, the lawyer for the opponents, said last week she will now seek action by state Attorney General John K. Van De Kamp, who is the guardian of charitable institutions.

The schools are nonprofit, charitable trusts, Ms. Kaplowitz said, and their trustees are not free under the law to abandon their purpose of single-sex education.

However, officials of the two schools are proceeding with their plans and they predict there will be no further legal roadblocks.

Venerable Alumni

Westlake, founded in 1904, has a venerable list of alumnae, including Shirley Temple Black, the child actress and now U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia; Sally Ride, the former astronaut; and the actress Candace Bergen.

Its board of directors has included the rich and powerful of Hollywood and Los Angeles, including the television producer Aaron Spelling, the movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn Jr., and David May II, of the May department-store family.

But despite its reputation and distinguished pedigree, the school's long-term financial condition has been hampered by a lack of an endowment. It has also faced what its headmaster, Nathan O. Reynolds, called "fierce" competition for girls in the Los Angeles area. The possibility that the Harvard School would become coeducational, further draining Westlake's applicant pool, led school officials to seek the merger last summer.

Mr. Reynolds now admits he vastly underestimated the ferocity of opposition from parents, many of whom have said they were convinced by the educational argument that, as a Westlake admissions brochure puts it, "the educational and emotional needs of young women can best be served in an all-girls school."

"Based on everything the school told us, I became a big supporter of single-sex education," said Ms. Lavine, who adds that her 8th-grade daughter has "really blossomed at Westlake. She became a young lady who could express her opinion."

After the merger was announced, opponents deluged trustees with letters expessing other concerns, such as the Harvard School's official ties to the Episcopal Church, which would remain for the new merged school. Many Westlake families are Jewish, and the presence of a cross on the Harvard campus and the daily chapel meetings do not sit well with them.

After agreeing to a one-month delay to consider the parents' concerns more carefully, the Westlake board voted 16 to 7 on Nov. 27 to proceed with the merger. At least one board member resigned in opposition before the vote. The Harvard board approved the merger unanimously, and opposition from its community has been minimal.

Among the charges leveled by Ms. Lavine and the other plaintiffs were that trustees had acted capriciously in approving the merger, that the school is reneging on its promise to deliver six years of single-sex education, and that the merger would violate Westlake's purpose as a nonsectarian and single-sex school.

Last month a Superior Court judge refused to issue an order or injunction to block the merger.

Eliminating Gender Bias

Mr. Reynolds, who will become provost and chief operating officer of the new Harvard-Westlake School, said officials and faculty can address "head-on" the concerns about girls holding their own with boys in the coeductional setting.

"We can get rid of the gender bias that creeps into classrooms," he said. "We can create an environment in which girls don't shy away from advanced science and math classes and where they have appropriate role models."

Harvard School Headmaster Thomas C. Hudnut, who will be headmaster and chief executive officer of the new school, said, "It doesn't bother me in the least that two single-sex schools are disappearing from the horizon. Certainly the marketplace is making itself felt."

Applications to Westlake have jumped by 50 percent since the merger was announced. Applications to the Harvard School have increased by a third, he said. Beginning in 1991, the new school will use the Westlake campus for grades 7-9, and the Harvard campus for grades 10-12.

While proponents argue that girls can best flourish in a single-sex school beàcause they have female role models and do not have to compete with boys in class or for leadership posts, the statistics bear out the "revolution" in favor of coeducation.

According to the National Association of Independent Schools, which represents 881 nonparochial private schools, in 1963-64, 24.3 percent of its member schools were all-girls, 37.4 percent were all-boys, and 38.3 percent were coeducational.

By 1975, more than two-thirds of nais schools were coeducational. In 1988-89, 12 percent were all-girls, 10.3 percent all-boys, and 77 percent coeducational.

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