On his first day of school, Nick Ramirez ’14 and his mother drove their Ford SUV to the North Faring campus. They passed Toyotas, Lexuses and Audis as they got closer — the first Ford they passed was the gardeners’.
“That sort of set the standard for how I saw my first year at Harvard-Westlake,” Ramirez said. “It wasn’t really like I was aware of it, but it was a subconscious thing that now I look back and I think I was afraid of being different or being seen as a financial aid student.”
Almost one in five students receives some form of financial aid. In 2000, the number was closer to one in eight. The increase is due to a recent push by the administration to offer more aid to more families and diversify the economic status of the student body, Head of Financial Aid Geoffrey Bird said.
Ramirez, who entered the school as a ninth grader, is just one of the almost 20 percent of the student body on financial aid. The school covers most of his tuition, in addition to his lunch card charges and books.
He told his friends he was on financial aid after becoming frustrated with the lack of gratitude he observed within his friend group. Ramirez relates the experience, saying he became angry and screamed that he happily got by with a quarter of what they had.
“[My financial situation] did cause some problems really early on,” Ramirez said. “I remember my first girlfriend at Harvard-Westlake, the first time I ever went up to her house I was angry. It was in Bel Air and I was looking at all of these houses and they just got bigger and bigger. I kept thinking people do not need to live with this much.”
Ramirez has gradually begun to notice the difference less — however, the difference is still there.
“[The discrepancy] is not something you just stop noticing,” Ramirez said. “It comes up in ‘what did you do this weekend’ or ‘where did you go’ especially when it comes to breaks.”
Chanell Thomas ’13, however, jokes about her aid, explaining that by discussing it seriously she gives it power.
“It’s not a problem — I feel totally integrated,” Thomas said.
Thomas emphasized the role the school has played in her assimilation into the community. When the choir goes to Bulgaria this year for a trip, Thomas will be able to join them only because the school will cover some of the cost.
“It should not cost you extra money to be part of something.”
-Head of Financial Aid Geoffrey Bird
“If you’re in a class and you need to buy required supplies, it should be covered,” Bird said. We also do help students who want to participate in optional activities like a trip.”
Thomas says that the school has lived up to their promises and encouraged her to go on trips and be involved.
“There has never been something that I wanted to go to and couldn’t because I couldn’t afford it. [The school] has always been super-supportive,” Thomas said.
In retrospect, Thomas acknowledges that her seventh grade wardrobe did not resemble that of her classmates. While she was wearing elementary school attire, her classmates were wearing clothing that looked older. Furthermore Thomas does not drive to school like most of her classmates due to the high prices of gas.
“I don’t feel like [our lack of total integration] is a problem that we as a school necessarily have — it’s a problem that we have as a society, it’s just our school is a microcosm of what’s going on in the rest of the world,” school counselor Luba Bek said.
Mario Portillo ’15 rides the bus to school every morning like many of his sophomore classmates. Portillo’s school bus ride is preceded by two separate public bus trips from his home to the bus stop.
As a financial aid student, Portillo has a mixed friend group, one that he says has fewer students on aid than not. When his status as a financial aid student came up with his friends, they barely reacted and the conversation naturally shifted without an awkward moment.
“We don’t talk about money or anything relating to financial standing,” Portillo said. “The first time I got to campus I was amazed because it looked so different, but it was never an issue when I got used to it. I was never bothered; I was comfortable. I didn’t have any problem.”
Clothing has played no role in Portillo’s experience at the school, but inviting people over to his house did affect his transition into the school during his first year.
“I don’t really like inviting people over,” Portillo said. “When I go to a friend’s house, I say ‘wow, that’s a nice house’ especially when compared to mine.”
Bek enumerated another problem some financial aid students face: “Any kind of socializing costs money. You go out, you see a movie, you go shopping, you spend money. In a lot of cases, people on the lower socio-economic levels don’t do that and find it almost impossible to say ‘I can’t go because I don’t have the money.’”
Aiyana White ’14 has faced that problem over the years but has since overcome that to feel like an integral part of the community around her.
“I do notice when people talk about going on trips and clothes that everyone wears, but over the years, you kind of just learn to adjust so it’s not so much of a surprise anymore,” White said. “Little things that people obviously don’t notice and don’t come with malicious intent are really when I think I notice [that economic discrepancy].”
However, White does notice the wealth difference occasionally, especially when students fail to express gratitude for their ample wealth and resources.
“It’s when kids start to complain about stuff that they don’t have,” White said. “I know I’m a lot better off than half of the world and I’m not going to complain about that. So when kids don’t appreciate what they have, I feel like that’s not fair. I have enough and I don’t have near what they do. Half the world doesn’t even have as much as I do so I feel like a lot of kids here don’t appreciate what they have and they should.”
White has loved her academic experience at the school and feels that the school has done a great job of offering her as many opportunities as possible. From Mock Trial to choir trips, the school has helped to cover the expenses and make her experience even better, White explained.
White said she has an economically diverse friend group with many friends on aid and many who are not. Her closer friends know she is on aid and the subject has never been an awkward one.
“I remember in seventh grade I came to the school and I thought everyone was going to be rich. The first person I became close friends with invited me over to their house and I was expecting them to be super rich. They turned out to be on financial aid too,” White said with a laugh.
The school works hard to achieve this level of comfort within its student body, ensuring that confidentiality is always preserved among financial aid students and that the transition into a new environment is a smooth one.
“We want to make sure that everyone is happy and involved in the community,” Bird said. “It’s a huge transition, coming from a public middle school to the Harvard-Westlake Middle School. You would feel like you had just gone into a different universe. To get them to be comfortable is hard.”
Thomas affirmed that the school has done just that and made her feel welcome in the community.
“The school downplayed it enough to the point where I don’t notice anything and they’ve been supportive enough where I don’t have to notice anything because I have always been given the same opportunities as everyone else,” Thomas says. “I think they have done a great job.”