A shot of the plane, bearing the anti-Astor banner (Photo courtesy of Instagram)
Orange County School of the Arts

Opinion: Plane banners and yard signs — Inside the crazy world of Irvine high schools

University High School is the crown jewel of the Irvine Unified School District. In 2011, Newsweek named it the best public high school in California. The campus is big, green, grand, and, like much of Irvine, planned to the last inch. Its sports and academic teams are successful and acclaimed, drawing soccer parents and tiger mothers alike to the school.

Uni is all at once a mesh of competition and glory, victory and defeat. So seems plausible that, behind the facade, all is not well at University High School.

Certain developments, months in the making throughout the 2018 to 2019 school year, first breached the surface of the outside world on Jan. 9, when a plane, bearing a banner that read “Fire Principal Astor! Fails to support Uni teachers” flew over the school. Campaign-style yard signs and posters had also cropped up in the area around Uni, essentially messaging the same sentiment. Clearly, someone was very, very upset with Mr. Astor.

According to Uni students, the person responsible for the flight of the plane was a young substitute Uni orchestra teacher,  Andrew Winslow. Winslow was a long-term substitute for a music teacher, and apparently something of a firebrand.

He was vigorous in his “practice checks” and obsessed over a kind of music festival, which he planned to put on. Winslow was by all accounts good at teaching, and cared about his art. But to some, he overstepped his bounds.

Allegedly, Winslow was abusive to students that didn’t practice. He failed students that he deemed as ‘not good enough.’ He had two musicians try out for the last chair position and second to last chair position in the orchestra.

His rage at an underperforming class even led to him forcing a group of cellists to play their instruments while on their knees; cellos are approximately half the height of a person. This incident, as well as many others, was captured by students on camera.

Uni is known for its intense academic environment. In higher end academic circles, A minuses are blasphemous. So orchestra parents, reeling from their students’ poor grades under Winslow, didn’t need much motivation to act against the teacher.

Upon receiving the evidence from their children, they moved quickly — the principal, Kevin Astor, was called in, and eventually, Winslow was sent packing.

Winslow was fired shortly before winter break. The yard signs cropped up days later, and, a few days after students had resumed classes, the plane was seen. A widespread theory is that Winslow has a wealthy father, who paid for the signs and the plane, but there has been no confirmation or denial of this rumor.

According to teacher ratings websites, Kevin Astor is your generic principal — strict, harsh, but not unfair. By this logic, Astor fired Winslow because he was protecting his students, and following district protocol, when he chose to fire Winslow.

Winslow was abusive, a bully, and a bad teacher — he deserved to be fired. While this viewpoint may seem logical, and is no doubt widespread, it misses what may perhaps be a crucial point — Winslow cared about his students. By all accounts, he was well liked, passionate, and good at music. His zeal just took him too far.

At University High School, and in Irvine, academic success is paramount. Kids pull all-nighters studying for tests after tests. Ivy League hoodies are widespread, even among elementary schoolers. I’ve heard stories of students that came home crying after becoming national merit scholar semi-finalists, distraught because there were countless other classmates that were finalists.

From this viewpoint, Winslow’s firing is somewhat cutting. He fit the image of the school’s student body so perfectly — passionate, talented, young, and intense — that it is no wonder why he felt such a connection to the school, and was upset to the point that he chartered the plane to fly over it. Like so many Uni students, he was an overachiever, and just took things too far. Like many burnouts, his fate was never really in doubt.

00125 Opinion: Plane banners and yard signs — Inside the crazy world of Irvine high schools
Kevin Astor, Uni’s Principal

This poetic view of the situation doesn’t excuse Winslow’s supposed behavior, and, I must mention, there is no way to objectively back up any of it. Ask any Uni student, and you may get a different story.

By most accounts, they are happy that he’s gone — their orchestra grades are stable and they no longer have to deal with Winslow. But, if only just for a moment, Winslow’s firing provided some insight into the deeply secretive world of University High School.

The plane’s flight drew lots of eyes (notably an article in the OC Weekly), and, hopefully, the high school’s administration can learn from it. There is clearly need for change at University High, and indeed Irvine, though it may have more to do with culture than the principal’s office.


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