For Wing Li, the choice between Quincy High School and North Quincy High was a difficult one.
On the one hand, she had cousins at North Quincy and there were more Asian programs. On the other, Quincy High had an impressive volleyball team.
“But what really caught my eye is the psychology course they had for junior year, so that just automatically switched my choice to Quincy High,” said Li, who is now a sophomore.
In a city with open enrollment, Li was able to pick the high school that better suited her needs. Yet with talk of a possible merger of the two schools, future generations may not have the choice.
A nonbinding referendum on whether to combine both schools — most likely by placing ninth and 10th grades at North Quincy High and 11th and 12th grades at Quincy High — is expected to appear on the November ballot.
While most Quincy officials insist that such a change isn’t needed, School Committee member Paul Bregoli said the public is interested in examining the idea. For years, some residents have questioned the allocation of resources and a sometimes unhealthy sense of rivalry between the two schools. But as the city’s demographics have changed in recent years, the element of ethnicity has been added to the discussion.
“It’s an old idea, an idea that’s been talked about for 30 years,” Bregoli said of merging the high schools. “I’m just resurrecting the issue and asking people how they feel about it.”
Bregoli is spearheading an effort to gather the 2,731 signatures needed to put the question on the ballot, and he said he’s more than halfway there. The outcome of the vote could prompt city officials to take up the plan.
Bregoli said he first broached the idea of a merger when he was a guidance counselor in the school system in 1999, and since then he has seen more signs of a sibling rivalry between the high schools that should be put to bed.
“I’m tired of the perception that one is better than the other, which is a fallacy. It divides the city, it divides our resources, allegiances,” Bregoli said.
The sense of rivalry is evident through the complaints that the new Quincy High School building and its programming is available to only half of the city’s students, he said. It has even shown up when students from one school go to another part of town to solicit donations for sports teams and are asked what they’re doing there.
A unified district also would address a more recent phenomenon, said Bregoli, who sees a cultural shift taking place at North Quincy High.
Over the last decade, the city’s population has grown 5 percent to about 92,000, census figures show. Over the same period, the percentage of Asians has jumped to 24 percent from 15 percent. That change has been reflected in the schools, particularly at North Quincy High, where 46 percent of the students in the past academic year were Asian, according to a survey by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Bregoli said some white students have told him they feel isolated in class. “When you’re one or two in a class and the remaining is Asian, those kids feel left out,” he said. “If the other kids are speaking in their own dialect, the white kids can’t understand what they are saying. It’s not a good feeling for them.”
According to Bregoli, the ethnic changes have trickled into athletics. Asians’ relatively low participation in football and soccer has made it tougher for North Quincy to field teams, he said.
Merging the two schools would provide more athletes for teams that aren’t garnering much interest, Bregoli said.
Quentin Lam, a 1999 North Quincy graduate, said that some self-segregation has existed at the high school for decades. But it’s not unique to Asians and can’t be solved by the walls of a different building, he said.
“I think as people, everybody tends to be with people that are similar to themselves,” he said. “Sometimes when it comes to culture, it’s because of interests, sometimes it’s based on religion. . . . That will be the case anywhere, in any large social setting.”
A merger should be more about resources and less about forcing the integration of social groups, Lam said.
According to the Quincy school system’s superintendent, Richard DeCristofaro, a merger might have made sense in the past, when many students were gravitating toward North Quincy High. A longstanding perception that North Quincy was geared more toward college prep — while Quincy High, with its extensive vocational programs, was more for worker training — had contributed to the shift.
That imbalance, coupled with the ongoing construction at the new Quincy High School, prompted the city to halt open enrollment for the 2009-10 school year. Since the new high school opened in 2010, the trend has reversed.
“The new building has offered so much more that students in this side of the city are staying, rather than going to North,” DeCristofaro said.
He added that the ethnic makeup of the schools doesn’t require any action at this time.
“If indeed as we look down the road, you need to look at the demographic or percentages of minorities and majority demographically,’’ the district might look at evening them out between schools, he said. “But at this point in time, I don’t see a real change in the culture.’’
School Committee member Emily Lebo acknowledged, “You wouldn’t want one school to be seen as a school for students that don’t speak English or a school for students with learning disabilities or vocationally oriented. You don’t want to set the schools up as inherently different.” But, like DeCristofaro, she said, “I don’t think it’s problematic.”
Still, a merger could be considered if it expanded course options. Lebo also said that a merger would make sports more competitive, but would leave a lot of children off the teams.
Another School Committee member, Anne Mahoney, said the racial composition of North Quincy High mainly reflects the surrounding neighborhoods, and not a conscious effort to flock to one school.
“If you look at the demographics of where people live, there tends to be a higher population’’ of Asians in the north part of the city, she said. “In a perfect world, you would even out the cultural opportunities by having one high school; that would definitely do that. But is there a problem that needs to be addressed?”
Overall, officials say, the high schools have done a good job of making all students feel comfortable.
Frank Santoro, the recently retired principal at Quincy High, said he created a multicultural council to welcome diverse groups to the school community. “After school those kids would hop on a train and go home, and I wanted them in the after-school culture. We got kids, from mostly the north end of the city, to feel more at home,” he said.
“It makes you feel proud as a principal. That’s one of the strongest points, diversity and appreciation . . . and I’m sure at North they are doing the same thing,” Santoro said.
North Quincy principal Robert Shaw could not be reached for comment, but several other school administrators emphasized the success of two distinct schools.
“Both our high schools have a wonderful culture and spirit. Students are getting unbelievable education at North and at Quincy High. I don’t think it’s broken,” said School Committee vice chairwoman Barbara Isola.
Mayor Thomas Koch agreed. “You have a flavor in both schools of the diversity of our city,” he said. “I don’t see it as an issue.”
At the end of the day, a merger should be assessed on what is best for students, DeCristofaro said.
“What can one school offer our kids to get them ready for the world of work or college or military or whatever they choose to do after 12th grade?’’ he said. “That should be the focus.”
Jessica Bartlett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.