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Love Him, Hate Him : Brash Educator Seen as Innovative, Divisive

March 12, 1992|HOWARD BLUME | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CERRITOS — Robert Sterling Beall has bullied, cajoled, sweated and innovated his way through close to 30 years as a teacher, principal and district administrator in the ABC Unified School District.

He began a year-round school before most educators even considered the concept. He put babies into classes before they could talk to see if the head start would help. He is best known as the first principal of Whitney High, a college preparatory school in Cerritos that is at or near the top statewide in test scores every year.

Despite that record, Beall, 56, was recently stripped of his post as an elementary principal. For the rest of the school year, he will sit in a barren office in a dead-end administrative job where the phone never rings, where he rarely sees a student. And he is being demoted to a classroom teacher position next year.

The reasons for Beall's downfall have much in common with what made him a genuine, though controversial, star in education. The burly, restless Beall never held his tongue or his ideas. His brash, determined, almost flashy manner frequently placed him at odds with bureaucracy, and he liked it that way.

Critics look at Beall as a divisive, sometimes wrong-minded, maverick whose style bred unrest. Supporters view Beall as a trampled hero, a voice that shouted new ideas in a field begging for them.

"You either love him or you hate him. I'm on the love side," said Whitney graduate Dan Kramer, a spokesman for the California Independent Petroleum Assn. "He doesn't suffer mediocrity well. He believes kids should rise to their highest level, that all kids can rise to the challenge if given the opportunity."

The incident that led to Beall's recent removal as principal of Carver Elementary School in Cerritos demonstrates the sort of controversy, opposition and adulation that swirls around him.

The furor began after the start of school in September, when a disgruntled Carver teacher called in the parent of a black child and pointed out that one of the two kindergarten classes had all five black kindergarten pupils.

The parent, Calethia Henderson, said she became convinced that her child was the victim of segregation. She launched an anti-Beall crusade that shook the district up to the boardroom.

The kindergartners had been grouped in their classes based on testing, a practice some teachers found objectionable. They said a principal should not group children before their formal learning has begun. In some cases, grouping by ability has been judged illegal. Teachers complained to parents and officials because they said Beall would not listen.

The allegations painted Beall as an elitist, a racist, or both. The district transferred Beall in December from Carver to a temporary, ill-defined job overseeing students on independent study programs.

His ouster raised the ire of other Carver teachers as well as many parents, including some black parents, who accept Beall's explanation of events.

Beall said the grouping of the kindergarten classes was only temporary, and that he had already directed teachers to make the classes racially balanced when the flap arose. Beall pointed out that only a divider separated the two kindergarten classes. And both classes had comparable numbers of Latino, Anglo and Filipino students all along. One class had a disproportionate number of black students, and the other a disproportionate number of Asians, but the numbers would have been balanced weeks before the mid-October deadline for final class assignments, he said.

Beall's defenders included Carver PTA President Sydney Byron, who resigned in protest.

"About 15 families were active in getting Bob Beall out," Byron said. "The other 400 didn't know or didn't want to dignify the (effort) by starting a fight here. We never dreamed it would go this far."

At several recent district board meetings, parents delivered heated statements either for or against Beall. Supporters far outnumbered detractors.

Beall became principal at Carver in March, 1990, and immediately started changing things. Using discretionary funds and money raised by the PTA, he brought teachers in from the high school and lined up community members to offer fine arts and academic classes after school.

He began a nonprofit association to raise money for the school, a project that lost steam when he left Carver. Parent John Lee, who worked on forming the association, said he was impressed by Beall's ideas and tirelessness.

"When my little daughter was in the fourth grade, she came home one day and said the principal had spoken to each class," Lee said. "She was really excited and pumped up. She would spend one more hour on her homework each day.

"I am a minority. I know Bob Beall well enough to sense there is no racism on his part."

Carver serves students from a wide range of economic and ethnic backgrounds. The student body is 34% Asian, 27% Anglo, 25% Latino, 9% Black, 4% Filipino and 1% other ethnic groups.

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