Lead Story West Edition

‘Education warrior’ battles private school stereotypes

LOS ANGELES — In the heated education wars that have been playing out across the country and especially here, traditional public schools are pitted against charters — public schools that operate with some financial and administrative autonomy — and to a lesser extent, private schools.

Traditional public schools are viewed as battlegrounds for equality, places where one could finally realize the kind of large-scale educational justice that’s eluded blacks and other minorities for generations. Private schools and increasingly charters are viewed as the opposite, insulated spaces of privilege and exclusion designed to attract students in specific demographic or income brackets.

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While people might expect quality education from a private or charter school — they’re choosing it, or paying for it, or both — they hardly expect social justice.

Paul Cummins does. He always has. Described as an “education warrior,” Cummins is that rare local figure who has spent his life creating independent schools not as bastions of exclusivity but as models for what he firmly believes public schools — all schooling, really — should and must be.

In 1971, Cummins founded Crossroads in Santa Monica, a nontraditional private school that has grown famous not just for its holistic, humanistic approach to education and academic success but for its diversity: fully 40 percent of the student body is low-income, on full scholarships, and a significant number are black or Latino.

Laudable for sure, but to Cummins, true diversity is a no-brainer, as foundational a part of a good education as English, math and other subjects that he calls the “five solids.”

Cummins pioneered the approach at Crossroads by committing up front to integration and providing students with equal access to resources, something that rarely happens in any school setting. After Crossroads, Cummins went on to found other campuses with similar philosophies, including New Roads School in Santa Monica and Camino Nuevo Charter Academy near MacArthur Park, as well as creating foundations supporting arts in the schools and progressive education in general.

His latest venture is TREE Academy, which opened this fall on Olympic Boulevard near La Brea Avenue in the Fairfax Mid-City area. Operating on the site of a Jewish temple, the new school offers individualized learning and curricula emphasizing creative arts, technology and social justice.

And of course, some 40 percent of the student body will get full scholarships in order to ensure ethnic and economic diversity. Cummins wasn’t looking for a new venture, but when he was approached with the TREE plan earlier this year by longtime friend and former Crossroads staffer Darryl Sollerh, “I was pulled back in,” he says with a laugh.

The Brentwood native and former teacher at Harvard Westlake — his alma mater — recently published a memoir of his life in education entitled “Confessions of a Headmaster.”

TREE (shorthand for Think, Create, Engage, Empower) opened with three grades, 6 through 9, with plans to add higher grades next year. Classroom conditions are a big urban school district’s dream: class sizes max out at 10. The student-teacher ratio is 1-to-1.

Beyond the five solids, students can indulge their interest in classes other schools would consider boutique but that Cummins calls essential: dance, movement, music, photography, theater, sign language.

He and his co-founder, Sollerh, say this kind of whole student approach is as important for privileged kids who over-focus on academics as it is for underserved students of color who too often don’t get enough academics, or anything else. The result is that they get lost in the shuffle, and end up disaffected and bored.

To Cummins, that is the worst thing that can happen in school. “Kids should have leisure time to do what they want,” he says. “Too often and in too many ways they’re stressed, and that squeezes the joy out of education.”

Joy in learning is essential, but it comes at a price. Cummins is a master fundraiser, but he says that the economy has shifted radically since the 1970s when he first started his educational enterprises. Where there once was a sizeable and diverse middle class that could afford a Crossroads, there is now 1 percent and everybody else.

Fundraising is tougher, and so is recruiting parents who both share Cummins’ inclusive vision and can afford tuition.

“We don’t have the super-rich kids, just the folks who can barely afford the $26,000 a year,” he says. The fact that these folks essentially subsidize tuition for less affluent students of color sometimes creates tension.

“The kids are better about integration than the parents are,” Cummins says. “And there is resentment on both sides. But at least we can talk about it here.”

Cummins is a fan of public education and its mission of quality education for all, but he isn’t very hopeful that mission will be realized anytime soon — not if per-pupil spending levels stay the same.

“If we keep those levels where they are, we can’t do it,” he says flatly. “You need money to effect reform, no question.”

He thinks there would be a lot more money for public education if large corporations paid their fair share of income taxes — he wrote a book about the subject in 2006 called “Two Americas, Two Educations” — but again, he isn’t hopeful the status quo will change anytime soon.

Charter schools and their fundraising ability are no panacea, he adds, “but at least they offer a possibility for reform and accountability.”

He acknowledges that the widespread fear that charter school operations are trying to cannibalize and essentially privatize public schools — especially in L.A. — is a legitimate one. Unlike charter school impresario Eli Broad, he isn’t against teacher unions.

“Unions are important to working people,” he says. “But unions can’t solve the problems of education.”

As important as money is, Cummins also believes that vision and passion — inspired leadership from administrators and other education professionals — is even more important.

“You can have no money and still make something happen — invite someone to speak at your school for free,” he says. Instead of thinking creatively, Cummins goes on to say, some administrators tend to rely on a familiar mantra.

“How many kids from Crenshaw or Manual Arts High go to the beach, sleep under the stars? Always it’s, ‘we don’t have the money.’”

TREE’s co-founder Sollerh, who taught theater and ethics at Crossroads, had an “a-ha” moment about the nature of inequality years ago, a moment that eventually led to TREE.

“Wealthy parents could afford stuff,” he says. “I remember kids came to me with self-identified problems. White kids went home to their tutors, black kids lined up outside the office. It was a big transformative moment for me. I wanted to give black students the sanctity that white students had.

“We can really work individually,” Sollerh adds. “There is no such thing as an average student. We need to retool education. We need to get off the factory model and into the ’everybody’ model.”