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Parental Guidance : The Ones Who Fork Over the Tuition Dive In to Keep Troubled Los Feliz Hills School Afloat

February 16, 1989|ESTHER SCHRADER | Times Staff Writer

When Glenn Silber was told in December that the small, private school his preschooler had been attending for six months was in danger of going under, his first thought was to pull his son out.

Then Silber and other parents like him thought again. Instead of walking away from Los Feliz Hills School, a nonprofit school that had been without a director for months, they decided to try to save it.

Silber's wife, Claudia, took over the business office. Another parent, Mary Louise Grady, became the receptionist. Last week, Glenn Silber joined the school's board of directors, and four more parents have applied. If they are accepted, the board will expand to 11 members. And parents have spent the last few Sundays refurbishing school buildings.

The parents say the school of 181 children, ages 2 to 18, is worth saving. The classes are small, the teachers are bright and committed, and the campus, whose futuristic buildings were designed by Los Angeles architect John Lautner in 1960, is an oasis of greenery on 6.4 acres in the midst of the urban landscape, the parents say.

But as the parents sift through piles of poorly organized bank statements and enrollment statistics, they are encountering obstacles that might give even experienced administrators pause. There are enormous debts to be paid and basic classroom equipment to be bought, they say. And while the school is staffed with experienced teachers, the absence of a director for a short but crucial four-month period left it lacking direction.

"There has been no center, no lightning rod for the school in recent years," said Christopher Geissmann, who took over as director of the school a few weeks ago. "Teachers had a vague idea that they wanted a caring, friendly atmosphere with a minimum of rules, no uniforms, that sort of thing. But what was missing was a sense of clarity, of how all this related to some larger goal."

The Los Feliz Hills School has had four names and five directors since its founding in 1960. It has been variously an alternative school that taught the children of liberal-minded celebrities, a short-lived cooperative, a school closely affiliated with the nearby Church of Scientology and most recently a school with a dynamic director who built a strong teaching staff but ignored the school's worsening financial problems.

Today the school owes more than $117,000 in mortgage payments and is running a deficit of $14,000 to $20,000 a month. Enrollment, once at 335, has dropped 40 students lower than what is needed to break even. The heating does not work, some of the buildings are in disrepair and the school on a bluff at the end of Russell Avenue is so low-profile that most people do not know it is there.

Still, parents of children at the school--for the most part young couples successful enough to afford tuition payments ranging from $2,600 to $4,410 a year--say there is something special about the place.

"This is a community, and there's this love that people have for the school and for one another that makes us want to keep the school going," said Christie Davis, who heads the school's newly formed Parents Advisory Council.

Chance to Survive

Because they believe in the school, parents say, they are working hard to give it a chance to survive.

In December, they raised more than $70,000 among themselves in the school's first-ever fund drive. Last month, they formed a committee to recruit students, and a group of parents met with some of the creditors who have been demanding for months to be paid.

They worked out a plan with the creditors to gain more time to pay off the school's loans. A parent who works as a graphic artist is designing a new logo for the school. Another is writing a new brochure. Next week, the school will hold an open house.

"It's a disaster, but we're going to survive," Silber said. "I feel that with all the energy I would expend trying to find an adequate preschool, I might as well expend it making sure this one is running correctly. I mean, what the hell, I'm not the type to roll over, and where else is my kid going to go?"

The school is one of the few in the country catering to such a wide age range, Geissmann said. Its campus consists of 14 buildings and several playing fields framed by Los Feliz's graceful Shakespeare Bridge. It has about 52 students in its preschool classes, 72 in its elementary school and 57 in grades nine through 12. Every student in last year's graduating class went on to college, Geissmann said--some to Stanford University, Cornell University, Occidental College and UC Santa Cruz.

"The place is refreshingly reminiscent of a mission because there is a sense of missionary zeal and fervor among the teachers and the students," said Thomas C. Hudnut, headmaster of the prestigious Harvard School in North Hollywood. "People were really excited about working together. I think that although there are things that require attention, the future is generally bright for Los Feliz Hills."

Experiential Education

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