Ask Boris Dralyuk about his student days at Fairfax High School and the impish young man with startlingly blue eyes will mockingly compare himself to one of the great anti-heroes of literature. "I know about the experiences of Saul Bellow's Augie March and the little Jewish kids growing up in tough urban areas, but Los Angeles is not one of those places. There is very little in common between the Lower East Side and Los Angeles. It's not a battle to grow up here. It is not a struggle."
While he may not have to brave New York winters in Los Angeles, Dralyuk has seen a fair amount of struggle in his time. He came from Odessa, Russia, in 1991 with his mother, Anna Glazer, while his father went to Israel where he eventually died of heart failure brought on by alcoholism.
Dralyuk's experience at Fairfax was especially unique, as he was selected to be one of 12 students profiled in the PBS documentary series "Senior Year." David Zeiger, the creator of the series, and a Fairfax alumnus himself, chose Dralyuk less because of the student's Judaism than because he was an immigrant.
"It was very important for us to follow a really smart, driven kid in public school," Zeiger said.
"He had come from Russia and it was kind of interesting to me that he had picked up English and become an intellectual with tremendous range," Zeiger explained. "Boris reflected a big reality. My agenda in 'Senior Year,' was to show public school in a positive light in the diversity it provides its students, and Fairfax is one of the most diverse places in the country. You can't have that diversity of kids outside of a public school situation. It's a real strength of Fairfax."
The students were followed by filmmakers who were USC and UCLA graduate students and not too far removed from their subjects ages.
Zeiger came back to his alma matter for the 1999-2000 school year to see what had changed in the neighborhood. While Zeiger found that the classic dramas of adolescence have remained the same, the background against which those dramas are played out against has changed dramatically. When Zeiger graduated in 1967, he estimates the school was 98 percent middle-class Jews. "I think we had two African American students in the entire place." Now only 13 percent of Fairfax's 2,700 students are classified as white, non-Hispanic -- nearly 90 percent of whom are Eastern European Jewish immigrants, like Dralyuk.
Dr. Carolee Bouge, Fairfax's dean of students said, "In the '60s, it was mostly white and the most diversity we had were the two Jewish populations -- Ashkenazic and Sephardic. Now the school is really a microcosm of the world picture. We have over 62 countries represented at the school, and 35 languages spoken."
So how did a school in the traditional heart of Jewish Los Angeles come to only have Jewish students who were immigrants? The flight of Jewish students from Los Angeles public schools has stepped up dramatically in the 1990s with 70 percent of Jewishly identified children in the Fairfax district attending private schools, both Jewish and non-Jewish. According to Bruce Phillips, a professor of sociology at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, "When L.A. High was destroyed in the 1971 earthquake, they shipped those kids over to Fairfax. No one was prepared for the influx, and that began to contribute to the decline of Fairfax as a neighborhood school."
Seniors from Fairfax still excel, with two students attending Harvard from the graduating class last year, 22 going to UCLA, 15 to Berkeley and three to USC, according to Kay Ochi, the school's college advisor. Thirty percent of the students do attend four-year colleges, and 55 percent attend two-year colleges. However, over 15 percent of the senior class still does not graduate.
The diversity of student accomplishments is perhaps a reflection of the various socio-economic groups the school pulls from, and may explain why a school that sends its graduates to the top universities in the country also qualifies as a Title 1 school.
Bouge tells stories of Korean children brought over by their parents and left alone to live in rented rooms in the district to give them an American education. "These kids obviously need a lot of support from their school," Bouge said. If anything, the diversity of students and their academic accomplishments might be testimonial to how vivid the American dream is for many immigrants.
Dralyuk was able to navigate the tricky twists and turns at Fairfax and not only survive, but thrive. Currently a sophomore at UCLA where he is studying Russian Literature, Dralyuk clearly cherished his time at Fairfax. "What I took away from Fairfax was the value of having so many people coexisting together without becoming homogenous, and even celebrating their diversity by teaching one another who they really are."
"Senior Year" airs every Friday night at 10 p.m. on KCET. The series will be preempted March 1, 8 and 15, but returns Friday, March 22. For more information, visit the Web site at www.pbs.org/senioryear .