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A Private School With a Public Commitment

January 09, 1985|JON D. MARKMAN | Markman is a Times copy editor. and

Wade Graham squinted in frustration. The 17-year-old Crossroads School student with rings on six or eight fingers and pointy black shoes couldn't quite get his teacher to grasp his definition of art.

"It is a mental decision; why does something have to have physical shape to be art?" Graham asked Jeff Cooper, who sat under a poster of Pablo Picasso's "Guernica."

Cooper shook his head and wiped his hands on his jeans.

"I'm not getting what you mean," he said.

So Graham went to the blackboard and diagrammed his aesthetic theory.

They used lots of four- and five-syllable words to agree to disagree--and Graham was asked to write a second draft of his thesis.

The exchange would not have been out of place on a college campus, but this was a school for seventh- through 12th-grade students, and the same kind of one-on-one teacher-student and student-student conversations were going on all over the campus.

Over here, they discussed Karl Marx. Over there, it was the merits of Rachmaninoff's piano preludes.

Overall, it was just another day at Santa Monica's private Crossroads School.

At a ceremony earlier this winter, the Department of Education joined the Washington-based Council for American Private Education in naming Crossroads as one of 60 "exemplary" private schools in the nation. No other secular private school in Southern California was named. Council Executive Director Robert Smith said federal evaluators singled out Crossroads' "splendid" capacity to set lofty goals in diverse areas--the arts, academics, community service and sports--and to meet them.

That sort of accolade should have been enough to set the heads of Crossroads School's trustees swelling. But they know what really sets Crossroads apart: its ability to work within the limits of its physical plant. In the words of one observer, the school--located on a small, trapezoidal block of industrial Santa Monica near the Santa Monica Freeway--has all the ambiance of a tire warehouse.

Although parents pay $5,500 per year to send their children to Crossroads, the student cafeteria is a lunch truck in a back alley. The concert hall-art gallery is a converted maternity clothes warehouse. A new library annex will rest in an apartment building recently gutted by a suspicious fire. Bougainvillea blossoms only partly cover barbed-wire atop the playground fence. And, while the school was CIF basketball champion in its division the last two years, there is no basketball gym or playing field.

"This is the weirdest campus you'll ever see," admitted school headmaster Paul Cummins, 47.

"But that's not necessarily a bad thing," said his wife, music teacher Maryann Cummins.

"If you have an ugly campus, you have to have good teachers," she said. "And you have to have students who want to come for the teachers and curricula rather than for campus beauty or prestige."

Teacher and curricula combine neatly in Jeff Cooper's classroom. A graduate of the University of Chicago, Cooper was hired to teach students like Wade Graham in a course modeled after St. John's College in Maryland. Students study 120 "great books" over four years there to earn a baccalaureate.

At Crossroads, students in grades seven through 12 compete to enter Cooper's seminar and may stay in it four years. The 16 who are successful each year meet to discuss one book for four hours each week, and have a one-on-one tutorial with Cooper one hour a week.

Graham, a senior who said he wants to study Latin American literature at either Harvard, Berkeley or Columbia next year, explained the course's appeal.

"We deal with the books, not grades," he said. "And we have really good discussions because you don't get into the class unless you really want to."

Amo, Amas, Amat

Whether they want to or not, all 600 students must study two years of Latin at Crossroads, four years of English, three of math and two each of history, laboratory science and foreign language.

Classical Greek I, II, III (and next year, IV) are not required--and few students are registered to take them. Yet, while listening to five students in the first-year class read from Plato, Cummins said he did not think courses in the ancient language should be dropped.

"Is a class like this cost-effective?" the headmaster asked. "The answer is no, but I think we have to keep it in our curriculum. Someone has to."

The overall student-teacher ratio is 15 to 1, but that varies, depending on the specific class: The Greek III class has two students and a general English class may have 40 students.

That the school has any sort of high-level academic curriculum at all is a surprise to many educational observers, Cummins said, because Crossroads is primarily known for its performing arts program.

That view was echoed by Leonard Richardson, an educational consultant who reported on Crossroads for the government study.

"The quality of their programs in the arts in my experience has no peer," said Richardson, who has headed private schools on both coasts during the last 23 years.

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