* Paul F. Cummins, 54, headmaster and co-founder of Crossroads School in Santa Monica.
* Claim to fame: Starting 20 years ago in rented church space, Cummins has built Crossroads into a 900-student private elementary and high school that emphasizes helping youngsters discover their individual passions and offers everything from Japanese and Greek to violin, film and rock-climbing.
* Background: Born in Chicago, Cummins grew up in Los Angeles and earned degrees at Stanford, Harvard and USC. A teacher, poet, musician and writer, he was headmaster at St. Augustine By-The-Sea Episcopal School before co-founding Crossroads.
* Interviewer: Times staff writer Lois Timnick.
Q: What are you the most proud of in the 20 years that Crossroads has been in existence?
A: I'm most proud of the diversity and balance in the school--the diversity of program, the student population, the curriculum offering--and the balance that we manage to keep between the arts, academics and a whole rich variety of programs for students.
When we won the 1984 U.S. Department of Education award as one of 60 exemplary private schools, the two site visitors who came here said that they had never seen such an "educational carnival" that worked so well.
I like the word \o7 carnival \f7 because it ties into something else that I'm proud of--the fact that students at this school like coming here, are happy to be here. People do their best work when they're happy. It sounds so simple-minded as to almost warrant not saying, but I think when students look forward to coming to school, you've got a far better chance of educating them.
Q: What is it about Crossroads that makes them look forward to coming here when they ditch school elsewhere?
A: I take great care to find teachers who are themselves alive and happy, who have a passion for what they are doing, and who treat students with respect and kindness. I believe kindness is terribly important, and if you're kind to young people they appreciate you--it feels like you're in an unkind world sometimes because of the pressures of adolescence.
Then, with our diverse programs, every student theoretically can find something here that he or she can be engaged in. I have found over the years that when students find one activity about which they feel passionate, that passion then spills over into everything else they do. So you try and design an environment with a palette so rich that all students can find some color that they can paint on their canvas.
Q: At the same time not neglecting what is referred to as "the basics?"
A: Right. We're a college preparatory school, and 100% of our graduates go to college. And they get in excellent colleges. We've been sending about 50% of our graduates East, mostly to the Ivies.
But that in a private school is almost a given. The question is, what do they get while they're here and what do they go off to college wanting to do with their lives? While that's very hard to measure, we at least set up the best kind of environment we can that will encourage students to do creative things with their lives and to live a life of service to other people. So community service is also an integral part of our curriculum.
Q: How does that work?
A: We have the equivalent of two full-time teachers who do nothing but administer community service programs, and of the private schools in town, I think our program is the Cadillac program. It is a graduation requirement, and I have even held up diplomas of straight-A students if they haven't finished their hours. They tutor in Head Start centers, day care centers; they visit lonely old people in convaleriums. We have a program called Adopt-A-Family where two Crossroads students and a social worker work with a disadvantaged family providing help for the mother. Typically it's a single mother with five to seven children and living at the poverty level, and the Crossroads students will come once a week and help them, take all seven children to the park, give her an hour to clean her house without going batty. We try to keep it in West Los Angeles just for transportation reasons, but there's plenty of poverty in West L.A.
Q: What is this "mysteries" program I keep hearing about?
A: In essence, it's a human development course in which students can ask the kind of questions that are most deeply felt, where they can explore their "mysteries" in a safe and a non-judgmental environment, where they develop listening skills and human relationship skills.
The fact is that most of us in life flunk out not intellectually but emotionally. If you're not paying attention to the emotional development of adolescents in school, particularly in the confusing times that we live in, I think you're shortchanging young people.
Q: During this 20 years, what are the things that you're not pleased about and would like to change?