Rosie Dochtermann and her husband, Rudy, spend almost $13,000 a year to send their two children to Oakwood School in North Hollywood. Rosie recalled the day that she gave her mother a tour of the facilities.
"My mother couldn't believe it. She looked around and said, 'You're paying how much for this? ' "
Although Oakwood has gained a reputation as one of the San Fernando Valley's most prestigious private schools, its students must attend classes at a cramped, divided campus in North Hollywood. The rooms are tiny--some classes are held in a nearby church--and a converted trailer serves as an auditorium.
School officials have been trying to move their campus from its current location--the lower campus is on Moorpark Street, half a mile from the secondary school on Magnolia Boulevard--to a 17-acre site in the rural hills of Calabasas, but that effort has thrown Oakwood into the middle of a bitter community dispute.
Some Calabasas residents are fighting the new campus. It would be built over the community's last pumpkin patch--Calabasas is Spanish for pumpkin--and opponents say it would further erode their neighborhood's fast-disappearing rural character.
Some Favor Relocation
Other residents are hoping to bring the school to Calabasas. They say they want a top-ranked private institution at their end of the Valley.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has stepped in to referee the dispute and is scheduled to make a decision in August.
Meanwhile, parents from all over the Valley are still standing in line--and paying up to $7,000 a year--to get their children into Oakwood, no matter what the campus looks like. Beau Bridges, Henry Winkler, Frank Zappa and Mick Fleetwood send their children to the school. Kindergarten classes typically have 120 or more applicants for 26 openings.
"Sometimes I wonder if it's worth it until I talk to parents at other schools," said Dochtermann of North Hollywood. "Then I know it is because the teaching is so good."
The Dochtermann children attend Oakwood's 2 1/2-acre elementary school campus, where there is no playing field. That's the school's good campus. The nearby secondary school is housed on only 1 1/2 acres. There is no gymnasium, no football field. Physical education classes are held at public parks and racquetball courts.
The Dochtermanns and other parents are attracted to the school for its curriculum, not its facilities. At Oakwood, there is a heavy emphasis on the arts and social studies. The school also promotes a concept of moral responsibility that requires students to involve themselves with children beyond their circle of friends and with the outside world.
And, students are given unusual freedom and authority at the school.
Oakwood's 650 students are on a first-name basis with their teachers. There is no dress code. They are free to interrupt in class by asking questions or challenging a teacher's assertions. They sit on panels that screen children applying for admission and teachers applying for jobs.
Oakwood headmaster James Astman said he believes that this aspect sets his school apart. Astman recalled that one of his proudest moments came in a conversation with an astronomy teacher at UC Berkeley.
"He said he was giving a test to one of those freshmen classes with 300 kids when someone interrupted the exam to ask about something he didn't understand. The instructor told me, 'I always know who the Oakwood students are. They don't necessarily know the answers, but they haven't read the rules.'
"The way you engender respect is by making real human-to-human connection," he said.
Oakwood students are willing and able to do this because they have received special attention in small classes, Astman said.
"Oakwood teachers have four or, at the very most, five classes a day," he said. "That leaves them free time for students."
Students and college admissions officers back this claim.
"The teacher recommendations show that they really know the students well," said Kevin Fox, an admissions specialist at Yale University. "My feeling about the school is it's a pretty high-powered school for such a small institution. It seems to have an environment that is really conducive to learning."
Seek Help From Teacher
"It's such a small school, you can always go to a teacher for help," said Oakwood ninth-grader Adam Lippman.
Graduating senior Adam Goldberg, who plans to attend Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., started at Oakwood in the seventh grade. He said good relationships with teachers have been the most valuable aspect of an Oakwood education.
"They really helped me quite a bit, especially the last two years when I started taking electives. There really is a lot of individual attention."
Of course, not everything is running smoothly at the school. In recent years, the concept of moral responsibility to community--a faculty favorite--has become the object of student discontent.