History of Mark Keppel High School

by Daniel G. Acosta (Source)

The morning of December 19, 1938 dawned damp and cool. Nevertheless, workmen eager to earn a day's pay huddled in groups in the field that sloped downward toward the streetcar tracks, airport hangers, and a Valley Boulevard awakening to light work-bound traffic. As they waited for their orders, some of the men, jacket collars turned up against the chill, conversed quietly; others silently took in the panorama, looking back at the nodding oil well pumps that peppered the Montebello hills behind them or out at the San Gabriel Valley that dropped down before them before climbing back up towards the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. The ground-breaking ceremonies had been held three days before, and now the men were eager to start work on the construction of Mark Keppel High School, a WPA project that would keep them employed for more than two years.



1940s

It was going to be a school that the Alhambra School District, the County of Los Angeles, and the cities of Alhambra, Monterey Park, and the "Wilmar" section of unincorporated Los Angeles County would be proud to call their own. Mark Keppel High School was going to bring much-needed relief to an Alhambra High School bursting at its seams from a population explosion. In 1921, AHS counted a student body of 900 students, but Midwesterners seeking a more temperate climate and refugees from hard-hit Depression and Dust Bowl states swelled the numbers until, by the mid-1930's, the school population had grown to 3,700. Keppel alumnus Steve Salazar recalls the over-crowded conditions at AHS that necessitated the building of Mark Keppel High School: "There were just too many students for those classrooms. During lunch period, there was nowhere you could go to get away from crowds. Every classroom was filled to capacity. And remember, there was no air conditioning at that time. The conditions made it very hard for students to concentrate on their work, and occasionally tempers flared."

Mark Keppel High School opened its doors to its 1,526 students on February 5, 1940. Royce "Doc" Foster remembers that first day of school at Keppel for he was the second student to cross its threshold: "I was familiar with Mark Keppel High even before school opened for Spring semester, since my friends and I had climbed all over the scaffolds on weekends when the workmen were not there. On that first day of school, I set out on my one and a half mile walk. As I got nearer to the building, I saw another boy walking toward the entrance. It was about 7:15 in the morning, and I think at that moment both of us realized that we were going to be the first two students to enter the school. I began to walk faster, then he began to pick up his pace. As we converged on the entrance he broke into a run, and so did I. But he was about 5-8 and I was just 5-2, so he got to the front door and went in maybe two or three strides ahead of me. I was satisfied to be the second student to enter Mark Keppel, and we laughed about our little contest that nobody else saw."

Once settled into their everyday rhythm, students discovered that Mark Keppel High School in the 1940's provided them with both a common and a unique high school experience. The population was, from its first day, a mix of whites and Mexican- Americans. Alumni recall that participation in campus activities was generally open to all students and uniquely integrated.

Dolly Acuña ('47) remembers the sense of racial harmony of the student body during her Keppel years: "People pretty much got along. There were cliques, and they were by race, but I think that was mainly because we got together with friends who lived in our own neighborhoods, and the neighborhoods were racially divided. But as far as getting along, I think Keppel was pretty good in having different races with very few conflicts. We all had Anglo friends and Mexican friends, especially those of us who played on sports teams. I'm proud to say that I was voted president of the Mark Keppel High School Girls' Athletic Association in my senior year. The G.A.A. was made up of whites and Mexicans."

Mark Keppel High was a typical San Gabriel Valley high school. Phyllis Greenameyer ('45) described what her teen years were like while attending Keppel: "I think teenagers back then had more time than they do today. The pace of life was slower, and we had fewer choices for entertainment than today. For us, fun meant going to the movies. The Monterey Theater on Garfield and Hellman and the Garfield Theater on Valley Boulevard were the two closest movie houses.

"Football games were held on campus, and school dances in the gymnasium were very popular; however during the war years I remember that we could not have night games because of the blackouts, and we had to black out the windows in the gymnasium for dances.

"My friends and I would often ride the Red Cars. There was a line that went east and west where the San Bernardino Freeway is today. We could take that line and transfer to another which ran parallel to Alameda all the way to Long Beach. At Long Beach, we liked to go to the Pike and Rainbow Pier. There were rides and other amusements. I remember that the Pike would be very crowded on Sundays, like Disneyland is today. We also took the Red Cars to the beach.

"Many of my friends and I took part in church activities. During the war our church sponsored many activities to help people, and we volunteered because we thought we should do something to help." Mark Keppel High School students indeed did their part in the war effort. At the time a boy could enlist in the service at 16 with his parents' consent, and the male population of the school dropped dramatically as many boys enlisted. From time to time Keppelites in uniform returned after boot camp to visit teachers and friends. ASB Cabinet reminded students to conserve valuable resources. Students helped out at area USO's. Many Keppelites wrote to pen-pals stationed in Europe and the Pacific as class projects. Students' expensive silk stockings gave way to more economical nylon and "Bobbie sox", and leather-soled oxfords were replaced by rubber-soled saddle shoes. When school administrators discovered that the rubber heels left unsightly marks on the gymnasium's hardwood floor, students were required to remove their shoes at dances, and the "sock hop" came to Keppel.

Mark Keppel High School alumni served gallantly in World War II. Although some students left Keppel to enlist in the armed forces, the majority join up immediately after graduation. A Gold Star Program was initiated at the school to honor the memories of Mark Keppel students and alumni killed in action during the war. More than 15 young men from Keppel were honored with a Gold Star.

By the close of the decade, Mark Keppel High School boasted an enrollment that had grown by some 300 students. World War II was four years in the past, and the Korean War had not yet begun. The country and the state was beginning to experience a healthy postwar economy, and Mark Keppel High School was preparing itself for the next ten years.



1950s

Rock and roll. Hot rods and slicked-back hair. Elvis Presley and poodle skirts. Mark Keppel welcomed the fifties amid the bustle of a society that was still regearing from a wartime to a peacetime economy. Student participation in campus activities was high and school spirit was soaring. Born with the break from Alhambra High School and its associated attendance boundaries, the Aztec-Moor rivalry dominated San Gabriel Valley high school news. By the early 1950's Keppel's student body had grown to above 2,000; and by the end of the decade, district administrators were forced for the first time to consider the erection of temporary classrooms-the notoriously permanent temporary bungalows-in the school parking lot behind the lunch court.

The decade saw the campus expand to the east. The east-west situated football stadium that had stood at the northeast corner of campus was demolished and relocated-on a north-south orientation, the bleachers having been condemned. Paul Baldwin ('61), for one, was happy to see the bleachers go: "My teammates and I were glad they tore down the old bleachers. The team locker rooms were located under the bleachers, and the locker rooms were terrible. The light was really bad, and there was hardly any ventilation. I was on the baseball team, and can you imagine the smell in there after a game on a hot day in May? And there was mildew all over the place. No matter how many times the coaches made us clean the place, it still looked and smelled bad!"

The new stadium, christened Montezuma Field after the Aztec emperor, was built of concrete, and could accommodate the entire student body. Builders took advantage of the natural slope of the land to create two athletic tiers: the upper field where basketball and volleyball courts were set up and where most general physical education classes would meet, and the lower field where the new football stadium, dirt track, baseball field and a small parking lot were built. While the stadium was being constructed, Aztec football had to be played at Moor Field, home of the cross-town rival Alhambra Moors, so Keppelites were happy once the new stadium was completed and Aztec teams could again play games on their home turf.

The Keppel-Alhambra rivalry, the oldest inter-school rivalry in the history of the California Scholastic Federation, had become so important by the mid-1950's that it had outgrown both Montezuma Field and Moor Field, and had to be moved to the capacious Rose Bowl in Pasadena. In addition to the importance of the game itself, the intensity of the rival often spilled off the field into "extra-curricular" activities that further motivated officials to move the game site to neutral turf.

Alumni recall another side of Keppel life. By the 50's many Mark Keppel students perceived that although the city of Alhambra claimed both Alhambra High and Keppel High, civic sentiment was clearly with AHS. Its location-in the heart of Alhambra-and its population-mostly Alhambra residents-was in marked contrast to Keppel's location-literally on the "wrong" side of the tracks-and population-residents of outlying areas of Alhambra, Monterey Park, and Wilmar. Keppel students' perception that AHS enjoyed favored-son status fanned the fires of the inter-school rivalry. Alumni point to Alhambra's newspapers of the time as evidence of this favoritism, remarking that it seemed that Alhambra High's coverage reported only its successes while Keppel's coverage reported only its controversies. This negative experience was transformed into a positive one for racial relations, as white and Mexican Keppel students bonded more closely together in the face of this adversity.

Campus activities gave students many opportunities to interact with fellow Keppelites. There were as many as twelve girls' TriHiY clubs alone. School dramatic and musical productions were usually standing room only, and the school featured a large marching band and drill team. Musical dramas featured Keppel drama students acting and singing to the accompaniment of the Keppel orchestra. To raise funds, clubs sponsored popular lunch time bake sales. Because of the large student body-too large for the cafeteria-school officials instituted two lunch periods. Alumni recall that the selection of one's classes before the opening of school in the fall hinged as much on the ability to share the same lunch period with friends as it did with choosing appropriate classes. The 1957 Senior Prom was held at the Huntington Sheraton Hotel in San Marino.

Ms. Arzt. The name conjures up images of girls kneeling in the office of the Assistant Principal for Girls while the legendary school disciplinarian determined whether hem touched floor. If it did, the relieved girl returned to class. If it didn't, she was sent home to change into clothing more appropriate for an academic institution.

The city of Alhambra sponsored a Rose Parade float every year in the 50's, and Keppelites could be found working on Rose Parade floats being constructed in the several airplane hangers left after demolition of the airport between the campus and Valley Boulevard in the approximate area now occupied by the Valley Mall at the corner of Valley Boulevard and Almansor Avenue. In addition to the float, the Aztec marching band alternated with the band from Alhambra High as the City of Alhambra's representative in the Rose Parade.

Off-campus social activities were vintage 50's. On Friday and Saturday nights, Keppelites cruised Valley Boulevard between Sixth Street eastward to Almansor Street and frequented several restaurants on the boulevard. By this time, Rod's, the Hat, Henry's, Farmers Boy's, and other "hangouts" were vying with one another for Keppelites' patronage. Surprisingly, despite the fact that both Alhambra and Keppel claimed Valley as their cruising grounds, very few incidents of conflict occurred to mar the fun-filled evenings. Seeing and being seen was the thing to do on a Saturday night.

As the 1950's ended, the Mark Keppel student body continued to bask in these years of relative innocence. There had been problems. Mark Keppel High School saw some of it sons go off to fight in Korea. Some did not return. There had definitely been controversies and challenges to school spirit and the collective sense of stability that the students enjoyed. In 1957, nearly half of the graduating class was transferred to the new district high school-San Gabriel High School-that had just been constructed in the alfalfa fields at the corner of Ramona Road and Mission Road just inside the eastern city limits ofAlhambra. But nothing in the 50's prepared society and Mark Keppel High School for what was to come… the "Age of Aquarius"-the 1960's.



1960s

The 60's began deceptively peacefully. The sense of well-being in the communities served by Mark Keppel High School could well have been the calm before the storm. Scott Mangrum ('69) thinks that the watershed might have been the year 1967-68: "It seems to me that in my freshman year (1965-66) Keppel still reflected 50's values. Miss Arzt still enforced hemlines. Boys could not wear their hair over their ears. There was even a strict dress code for teachers.

"Every school morning at 7:45 sharp, all students and staff-no matter what they were doing at the time, inside the building or outdoors-were required to face the flagpole at attention while the American flag was raised. School discipline was tightly regulated on a merit/demerit system. The physical education classes were highly regimented, and conformity was the virtue of the day."

Suddenly, as though someone had merely flipped a wall switch, everything changed. The 1967-68 year began with a radical relaxation of the dress code. Miniskirts began appearing. Girls were wearing pants to school unchallenged. Boys began sporting the Beatle-esque mop-top hair style. And the changes were not merely cosmetic. The counter culture had made its way onto the Keppel campus. In classes, in the lunch court, and on the athletic fields there was talk of drugs and drug use. Whether or not students were actually experimenting with marijuana and LSD, drugs were the talk of the school. Administrators and staff, unprepared for this radical shift in values, tried vainly to assert discipline.

At the same time that the counter culture was finding a place on the campus, a shift in the ethnic makeup of the student body was occurring. As some whites began moving out of Keppel's attendance area, Mexican-Americans were moving out of East Los Angeles and into the area. As the stability of long time residence weakened, racial tensions began to emerge. Scott Mangrum remembers those times: "In a way, Keppel was becoming a school made up of strangers. I remember that I hung around with a few friends I grew up with and with whom I attended school since elementary. Now suddenly, it seemed there were a lot of kids I didn't know. There were white kids I didn't know and there were Mexican kids I didn't know."

In this milieu, many students perceived that ASB was irrelevant, an exclusive clique whose activities only inflated their own egos, and for these students school was not what was happening, although the most popular campus activity still continued to be the school dance-with a 60's spin. These dances featured live bands-many with name bands like Iron Butterfly performing-and the psychedelic light shows popular at the time.

Cruising continued to be a popular off-campus pastime. The car of choice for cruising was a custom '56 or '57 Chevy. But the Monterey Park and Garfield theaters were past their prime, and more and more teens opted for drive-in movies where they could watch a flick and show off their car.

Conditions were difficult in the classroom. In the 50's, the San Bernardino Freeway had been build along the north side of campus, separated from the school by only a chain link fence; and by the 60's, students had to either endure the deafening din of freeway noise or close the windows and swelter in non-air-conditioned classrooms.

In spite of everything, the number of students attending Keppel continued to grow. By the mid-60's the school population numbered between 2,500 and 3,000 students. And bungalows 1-9 had already been installed beside the lunch court.

The girls' gym was constructed in the mid-fifties. An expansion to the girls' locker room area was built in the 1960's.. No sooner had work begun than an unusual problem arose: A bus stop/shelter had been constructed at the Hellman Avenue entrance to the campus at the same time as the main building in 1939. Cement trucks attempting to deliver their loads to the girls' gym site could not drive beneath the massive concrete and steel structure. The solution seemed simple enough: Get some men to knock it down. The proposers of this solution had no idea how well it had been constructed until they found that sledge hammers made no dent in the shelter. Not even a wrecking ball could penetrate its wall. It took the clearing of neighboring residences and the use of explosives to bring down the massive structure. Engineers marveled at the amount of material that had been used for such a marginally important building.

By the end of the 1960's the face of Mark Keppel High School had completely changed. School apathy, the counter culture, and anti-war and ethnic activism dominated the atmosphere of the time and accurately mirrored the growing cynicism of society in the years following the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. Keppelites watch on television as young men-including Keppel graduates-died in the jungles of Vietnam and the Watts section of Los Angeles set itself on fire in angry frustration at social injustice.

Yet amid the tears and the flames, students continued to enroll at Mark Keppel High School in record numbers, and teachers and staff renewed their commitment to the youth of their community. If they just kept the faith, the general feeling seemed to be, things might get better. The 1960's had been a era of social revolution and upheaval. Keppel would survive, stronger, in fact, for the experience.



1970s

President Lyndon B. Johnson declined to seek a second term, and Richard M. Nixon was elected President of the United States. On the Mark Keppel High School campus, the 1970's began in continuing unrest, the volatile issues of the 60's not yet resolved. Racial tensions continued, and now the specter of gang violence arose. The Black Pride movement and the Chicano Movement brought hope to some students while alienating others. Activism continued, but it shifted subtlely from anti-war protests to a return to the pre-Vietnam War demand for racial equality. On the Keppel campus, a Chicano Studies course was developed to address this issue. Mexican-American and Latino clubs were formed as alternatives to the perceived exclusivity of existing campus clubs. An uneasy peace settled over Keppel in the early 1970's, as if students and staff tacitly agreed that problems existed but that solutions existed, too. The student body-white and Hispanic alike-accepted and embraced the new clubs as serving an important role in bridging differences. And fortunately, the gang activities that plagued area neighborhoods did not find expression on campus.

On the athletic field, Keppel fielded teams with mixed results. The major sports teams posted mediocre records, but lesser sports teams such as wrestling and tennis proved to be league powerhouses. Montezuma Field was re christened Aztec Stadium in light of Montezuma's redefined image as a weak and defeated leader. As if rising from its own ashes, school spirit began to grow, slowly but steadily. Cultural diversity was recognized as ASB Cabinet began sponsoring Cinco de Mayo assemblies and festivals. Clubs relaxed their racial exclusivity and gradually began to more closely resemble the ethnic makeup of the student body.

In academics, Keppel could boast that fewer students were dropping out, as more and more students took advantage of effective federally- and state-funded programs to improve their reading and mathematics skills. Advanced Placement classes began to post exemplary scores with regularity.

One potent shot in the arm for Keppel morale came in the form of Project Student. During the watch of Principal Wayne Henderson in 1971-72, with the campus leadership of social studies teacher Robert Low and student leader Sandra Serna, with community support, and with the backing of local state legislators, Project Student successfully lobbied Sacramento for much-needed improvements to Keppel's physical plant. What made project student unique was that the State legislature passed a bill that would benefit only Mark Keppel High School.

After years of enduring either stifling heat waves with closed classroom windows or, with windows open, deafening traffic noise from the adjacent San Bernardino Freeway, Keppel received the state's first "noise attenuation barrier," a concrete and masonry wall to replace the chain link fence separating the campus from the freeway. As a result of Project Student, the main building would be closed during the 1974-75 school year in order for crews to install air conditioning and insulated windows.

The closing of Keppel required that teachers and students share Alhambra High School facilities in double sessions, Alhambra High operating in the morning, Keppel in the afternoon. Remarkably, few if any student conflicts occurred during this awkward period of proximity between the rival schools. And afterward, while Keppelites began to settle back into their home campus routine after returning from the year-long exile, more changes were on the wayIn the middle and late 1970's, these changes would be much more dramatic than simply concrete and glass.

As the Vietnam War drew to a close, Vietnamese and Cambodian citizens who had escaped the Communist regimes in their home countries sought refuge in camps in the Philippines and other havens, then made their way to the United States. The personality of the community surrounding Keppel began to change as the first of the Vietnamese "boat people's" children began enrolling in local schools.

Teachers and native-born students were shocked by the tales these students told of dramatic middle-of-the-night escapes with only the clothes on their back and the little money and jewelry they could sew into their clothing, of harrowing open-sea crossings in flimsy boats, of gun-point searches by modern-day pirates intent on taking anything of value from them, of squalid conditions in refugee camps while they waited for a sponsor for their immigration to the U.S. As Keppelites-native and refugee alike-struggled to integrate the disparate cultures that had suddenly found themselves shoulder to shoulder in Keppel's crowded halls, the school continued to faithfully reflect the community that nurtured it. The ethnic changes that began even at the birth of the school would continue even more dramatically in the 1980's.



1980s

It was hailed as the "Chinese Beverly Hills" in Asian magazines and advertisements. Local realtors touted Monterey Park overseas as a community that welcomed Asian families seeking to relocate as more and more Pacific Rim businesses found markets and points of entry in the bustling port of Los Angeles. To some old-time locals, it seemed that, almost overnight, Atlantic Blvd. and Garvey Ave. had gone from sleepy, suburban avenues where shoppers stopped on sidewalks to greet neighbors to busy thoroughfares bumper to bumper with traffic. Local businesses changed hands, and homeowners sold their properties to Asian families seeking a safe, thriving community in which to raise their children.

While, in 1977, Asian families accounted for 13.6 % of the school district population, by 1988 the percentage had skyrocketed to 64%. Both students and staff had to adapt to this sudden influx of large numbers of students from Pacific Rim countries. At the same time, having left their native countries for political or economic reasons, families from Latin America were also arriving at Keppel's doors. As a result, the student population grew beyond Keppel's ability to accommodate them in the severely limited number of regular classrooms available. For the second time in Keppel history, the district had to bring in bungalows. In addition to the nine structures located adjacent to the lunch court, ten new temporary classrooms were installed adjacent to the volleyball courts on the campus's upper field. These units, carpeted and air-conditioned, provided needed relief from the overcrowded conditions.

Participation in ASB-sponsored campus activities suffered as a result of the influx of foreign students unfamiliar with American high school customs. Membership in campus student clubs and in several league sports teams dropped dramatically during this time, although the tennis program remained strong and the soccer program flourished. Although there was student apathy, unlike the 1960's this apathy was born of unfamiliarity rather than non-conformity. But existing campus clubs and new ones oriented towards the new school population eased the integration of the student body, and by the end of the decade, administrators and teachers alike hoped that, as students moved through the elementary schools and became acculturated, Keppel would see a renewal of school spirit and a return to student participation.



1990s

As Mark Keppel High School entered the last decade of the century, signs began to appear that those hopes would be fulfilled. Students from immigrant families, first-generation American elementary schooled, began enrolling in Keppel, students raised as Americans and familiar with the American values of the mainstream culture. These students were proud to be American and proud of their Asian heritage. Hispanics, too, found that they could operate in a bilingual world both at home and at school. Lunch-time festivals took on a truly international flavor as all students eagerly sampled delicacies from a score of national cuisines. When the board of education mandated that district campuses be closed, students adjusted-if grudgingly-extremely well.

The 90's kinder, gentler times came to Keppel. Renewed student interest, echoing the nature movement of the 70's but more politically and socially aware, gave birth to new clubs that emphasized stewardship of the environment and social consciousness. If the romance of the 50's gave way to the idealism of the 60's and then the cynicism of the 70's, the solipsistic self-absorption of the 80's had likewise given way to a proactive optimism in the 90's.

1995 saw a decline in enrollment at Keppel for the first time in decades. The new Gabrielino High School in neighboring San Gabriel siphoned off a large percentage of San Gabriel High School students, resulting in boundary changes to spread the high school district population equitably. Although Keppel lost a segment of students from the Rosemead area, it gained students from Monterey Park.

Frustrated by years of seeming neglect from the board of education-most pointedly exemplified by the failure of the district to renovate the oldest school plant while the younger Alhambra High and San Gabriel High campuses were extensively upgraded-Keppel found new, enthusiastic allies in the parents of new Keppel students. The Mark Keppel Alliance was born in 1996 to both lobby for improved care and maintenance of Keppel and participate fully in the life of the school. Alliance members-student, teachers, parents, and school administrators-rolled up their sleeves and what they didn't fund, they fixed, painted, or provided.

The 90's made the turn towards the second millennium buoyed by fresh optimism, exemplary academic achievement, exceptional student participation in school activities, and history-making success in the athletic program. Keppel led the district in the percentage of students passing the national Advanced Placement examinations. Keppel was the only school of the three district mainstream high schools awarded a 6-year WASC accreditation. Keppel was recognized nationally for the excellence of its student leadership and its associated student body-sponsored activities. Aztec badminton teams made CIF history by earning CIF Southern Section crowns and dominating CIF badminton nine of ten years while building a won-lost record that may never be equaled. The girls' basketball teams, having waited patiently for their development system to mature, participated in CIF playoffs two years in a row and promise to become a dominant force in girls' athletics. The 1998 Varsity football team rose to the occasion against an Alhambra High team with history-it's centennial homecoming-the crowd, the odds, and the score on its side to upset the favored Moors-arguably the greatest victory in Aztec football history, inarguably the greatest in this venerable rivalry.



2000s

In the student parking lot, souped up Fords and Chevys have been replaced by highly-tuned Hondas and Acuras. Instead of students holding transistor radios to their ear to catch the latest surfer hit, today's students move about, earphones plugged into contraband compact disc players secreted in backpacks. The de riguer leather jackets and Levi's of the 50's are no more; instead students sport Fubu, Polo, and Bebe fashions. Passing notes to class has gone the way of the slide rule; today's students carry pagers and take notes on laptop computers. Is Mark Keppel different than it was that February day back in 1940, when Royce Foster raced to be the first Aztec in the door? Yes and no. The clothes are different, the subject matter and methods updated, the hallway language a far cry from the days when mouths were washed out with soap and paddles asserted discipline behind the assistant principal's closed door. But students today share the same hopes and dreams, fears and frustrations. Hearts are still broken, athletes still shed tears at stunning victories or bitter losses. Report cards are proudly displayed on refrigerators or self-consciously stuffed in dresser drawers until after the weekend. Bells ring and lockers slam as they always have. Hall passes are still forged and excuses made for homework not turned in.

Mark Keppel High School, its classic art moderne facade still beautiful after 59 years, still welcomes nervous freshmen and bids good-bye to sentimental graduates. Within its halls the Aztec spirit continues over the years to ebb and flow to the rhythm of life. Keppel teachers continue to teach ethical behavior in an imperfect world, to prepare their students to join alumni who have made their mark on that world. As a new millennium has begun, Mark Keppel High School continues to face the challenge of the future with a spirit of optimism born of a sometimes serene and sometimes tumultuous past.

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