Playing to Rave Reviews

Private Academy Puts the Arts Back in the Spotlight at Public Schools

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Some people might call Paul Cummins crazy.

Like many a private school official, Mr. Cummins, the president of the Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences here, has devoted untold hours to fund-raising. And he is good at it. His efforts on a recent campaign paid off to the tune of nearly $1 million.

But then he labored just as furiously to give it all away. And to the public schools.

Several years ago, Mr. Cummins realized the experimental school he had founded in the early 1970's had become a solid success. Parents in this beachside city just outside of Los Angeles were scrambling to enroll their children at Crossroads, a K-12 academy of 940 students that offers a strong arts program in addition to a more traditional college-preparatory curriculum.

It was time for a new challenge, and Mr. Cummins and his colleagues decided they wanted to try to help local cash-strapped public schools restore their largely extinct arts programs.

They got the program off the ground with an initial grant of about $600,000 from a foundation started by the musician and record producer Herb Alpert. More than two dozen smaller grants from other foundations and businesses followed.

Today, the Crossroads Community Foundation is footing the bill for comprehensive art, music, dance, and drama classes at two public elementary schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District and at the Santa Monica Boys and Girls Club. The school also underwrites a choral-music program at Palms Junior High School in West Los Angeles.

While partnerships between private and public schools are becoming increasingly common across the nation, the scope of the Crossroads initiative is "pretty impressive,'' said Margaret Goldsborough, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Independent Schools.

"It really has been an overwhelming success story,'' said Kip Cohen, the president of the Herb Alpert Foundation. He praised the Crossroads program's depth and continuity, contrasting it with programs "where they haul [students] off to a symphony concert underfed and underslept and underprepared ... and they call that exposure to the arts.''

'Building the Whole Child'

For Crossroads, supporting arts programs in the public schools seems a natural outgrowth of the school's mission that capitalizes on its institutional strengths.

The school's top-notch chamber orchestra has achieved an international reputation and now draws students from as far away as Beijing and Seoul, South Korea. Its players have soloed with such leading symphony orchestras as the Los Angeles and New York philharmonics while still in high school.

On a recent sunny afternoon at Broadway Elementary School in Venice, a class of giggling 3rd graders with the energy of a small tornado lined up outside their music classroom, eagerly poking their heads inside the door.

As Richard Geere, their teacher, sat down at a piano and began playing a quiet melody, the laughter and chatter subsided. Without any verbal directives, the students recognized the tune as their cue to file in and form a circle in time with the music.

For the next hour, Mr. Geere and his co-teacher, Marty Fox, demonstrated a pedagogical approach championed by the German composer Carl Orff. The idea is to teach children about music through the experience of listening, playing, and singing, rather than by learning to read music. The two teachers led the youngsters through a gradual progression of exercises that resembled a musical version of "Simon Says.''

The children listened to, then imitated, a series of rhythmic patterns, first using hand claps, snaps, pats, and foot stomps, then repeated them vocally. "Ti, ti, ta, ta, ta,'' they chanted. Finally, they echoed the beats on simple percussion instruments--drums, triangles, and wooden sticks.

The program has elicited praise from students, parents, teachers, and Broadway's new principal, Ed Romatski.

"I feel it's very important to build the whole child,'' Mr. Romatski said. "Activities like this expand their horizons.''

While such a music class might be common fare in wealthy suburban schools, it is almost unheard of in many Los Angeles schools.

Boon to Disadvantaged Students

It is especially valued here at Broadway, which serves a large population of disadvantaged youngsters. The school's enrollment is 90 percent Hispanic and 10 percent black, and about 80 percent of the students are eligible for free lunches under the federal school-meal program.

"Our children are so limited,'' Rolla Rubin, a 5th-grade teacher, said. "They don't have magazines at home, they don't spend a Saturday afternoon at a museum, they don't go to plays.''

Before the new initiative, Broadway had almost no regular music or art classes, according to Ms. Rubin, who has taught there for 24 years.

Doris Davis, another 5th-grade teacher, noted that, despite the state's highly regarded curriculum framework in the arts that is filled with "all these wonderful things that should be happening,'' there has been little funding available for arts classes.

Thus, the two women said, teachers have been left to their own devices, and many either do not have the time or do not feel capable of teaching the arts.

Organizing Outreach

Meanwhile, a few miles away at the Crossroads School, a series of circumstances led to the creation of the community foundation in 1992.

Roger F. Weaver, the school's associate headmaster, was starting to consider interviewing for headmaster positions at other private schools. And Mr. Cummins, the headmaster, was looking for some new projects to tackle.

The trustees of Crossroads agreed to promote Mr. Weaver to headmaster and to create a position for Mr. Cummins, school president, with the responsibility of overseeing community outreach.

The initial grant to Crossroads from the Herb Alpert Foundation was a critical first step, according to Alva Libuser, Crossroads' director of development. Mr. Alpert, who made his fortune fronting the Tijuana Brass in the 1960's and who founded A & M Records, knew of Crossroads because his daughter, Aria, was then a student at Crossroads.

Currently, the outreach program employs nine part-time professional art, music, dance, and drama instructors who work at the three program sites. Mr. Geere, who is a Crossroads faculty member, is also on loan to the schools. In addition, it picks up the cost of all materials, ranging from paints to easels to musical instruments.

Ms. Libuser attributes the program's success in attracting financial support to a growing awareness of how the arts can improve children's self-confidence and their ability to express themselves.

"I'm a big believer in the arts' inspiring learning in other areas,'' said Richard Crowell, a foundation board member whose daughter Jennifer is a 2nd grader at Crossroads.

"Private schools are a fairly insular group,'' Mr. Crowell added. "Trying to use the resources of that group for the broader community was very appealing to me.''

Others observed that the idea tapped into concerns about the needs of urban communities, particularly in light of the 1991 riots in Los Angeles that followed the verdict in the Rodney King case.

"People were tired of just cursing the darkness,'' said Tony Browne, the president of the foundation board. "They wanted to light a candle somehow, and this was a good way to do it.''

Among the foundations that have been impressed by Crossroads is the ARCO Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Los Angeles-based petroleum company. The foundation "went way out of our guidelines'' to approve a $10,000 grant, according to its president, Eugene Wilson.

"Typically, we wouldn't give to a private school,'' he said, "but because they're using an innovative approach with a public school, and in a public school, and with a bunch of at-risk kids, that was enough for us to help them out.''

Not a Typical Prep

Crossroads is far from the typical ivy-walled prep school surrounded by rolling green lawns. Located just off the busy Pacific Coast Highway, it occupies a middle ground between a string of milliondollar homes overlooking the ocean and low-income neighborhoods.

At first glance, the school seems an odd melange of cream-colored warehouses. And this turns out to be not so far from the truth. As enrollment has grown over the past two decades, the campus has expanded by taking over nearby buildings formerly occupied by an auto-body shop, a machine-parts storage facility, and a maternity-clothing warehouse.

The atmosphere at the school is equally unconventional. During a recent lunch hour at Crossroads, students spilled out into "the alley,'' a courtyard filled with wooden picnic tables and decorated with a large, colorful mural. The themes from the television shows "Bewitched'' and "Peter Gunn'' blared over a stereo system manned by student disk jockeys.

Students greeted passing faculty members by their first names.

At first, Mr. Cummins acknowledged, some people "are appalled by this, because they think it's incredibly disrespectful, but it makes students feel like the teacher is their friend and their mentor.''

Service a Key Element

An ethos of public service has always been an integral part of the school, according to Mr. Weaver. Students are required to take classes in ethics and to perform community service in the 11th and 12th grades.

Some students have opted to fulfill that requirement by helping out at the school's partner public schools. Marc Perloff, a senior, tutored at Coeur d'Alene Elementary School last year. The service requirement, he said, "gives you a better sense of the problems we may have in our society.''

Crossroads students and faculty members also help out in a variety of other ways outside the structure of the formal service program. This year, for example, the drama department hopes to stage a production of "Godspell'' for the public school students.

And while Crossroads attracts a fair share of the children of Hollywood celebrities--among them those of Goldie Hawn, Mel Brooks, and Robert DeNiro--as well as those of other families who can afford the $10,000 to $12,000 in tuition, it also sets aside 10 percent of its operating budget--or $1.2 million this year--in an effort to improve its diversity.

Currently, 80 percent of the upper-school students are white, 10 percent African-American, and 5 percent Asian. The remainder are Hispanic, East Indian, Middle Eastern, and Native American.

The foundation is also trying to identify talented students at the partner public schools who would benefit from Crossroads' special arts offerings. Two former Broadway students, Luis Castro and Angelica M. Calderon, are now 7th graders at Crossroads and receive scholarships.

Mr. Weaver hopes that the school's outreach programs "will be another ground-breaker for the way independent schools and their boards think about themselves and their mission.''

All of these initiatives are taking place at a time when community service is gaining momentum nationwide. In a recent N.A.I.S. survey, 81 percent of the 344 private schools that responded said they offered some type of community-service opportunities, ranging from tutoring to preparing meals for AIDS patients to maintaining hiking trails.

While large, institution-wide outreach efforts like the Crossroads initiative are less commonplace, independent schools are becoming more and more aware that they must strengthen their ties to their broader communities, Ms. Goldsborough of the N.A.I.S. said.

The association is in the early stages of establishing an institute on public-private partnerships in an effort to track the progress of such outreach efforts.

One long-range outcome of these partnerships, according to Mr. Cummins, is that they may help create a new contingent of advocates for public education.

Initially, Mr. Cummins said he was amazed by how little he and other private school administrators know about the day-to-day realities of public education.

Today, he says, he no longer blames public education for its limitations. "Public schools have become a dumping grounds for the social and economic problems we have been unwilling to deal with as a nation,'' he asserted.

"The challenge here in L.A. is: Will the wealthy enclaves just sort of wall themselves off, and will the city disintegrate into groups that are hostile and unequal?'' he said. "Or can we bring them together ... and get along with and respect each other?"

Vol. 13, Issue 07, Pages 1, 11-12

Published in Print: October 20, 1993, as Playing to Rave Reviews
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