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Private School Hires Headmaster, Aims for Opening : Education: After two years in the idea stage, the prep school plan has reached a turning point. Now it needs a site.

March 22, 1992|SANDRA BRETTING | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LONG BEACH — For two years, the Westerly School, an independent primary school proposed for Long Beach, was as ethereal as the winds for which it was named.

A group of Long Beach professionals had a vision--to develop a top-flight independent school with small classes, an advanced curriculum and increased parental involvement. But they had little else.

Today, the school has an active 13-member board of trustees, a 550-member mailing list, a $250,000 war chest and a headmaster, Ray Bizjack, who will join Westerly School on July 1 and work toward opening the school next year.

"There's a word in Spanish: ambiente ," said Bizjack, 51, who now heads the Caribbean Preparatory School in Puerto Rico. "It means atmosphere. My role as headmaster will be to create an atmosphere that fosters a lifelong love of education."

Before his work in the Caribbean, the soft-spoken, self-effacing educator served as headmaster of a private school in Sedona, Ariz., and in 1980 created a private academy in San Rafael.

For Sonja Berggren Seaver, the volunteer president of the Westerly School's board of trustees, Bizjack's appointment marks a turning point.

"We've finally become a respectable entity," Seaver said. "We're not just an idea anymore, but an organization with bylaws, a headmaster and all of these things you can see."

Seaver and her colleagues originally hoped to open Westerly School this fall. However, after spending the past year organizing committees, developing bylaws and conducting the nationwide search that led to Bizjack, they say the school will not open until the fall of 1993.

As envisioned, Westerly School will feature classes with 22 students or fewer and an enrollment of 250 children in kindergarten through eighth grade.

The school, which has been criticized by some members of the community as elitist, would be the first nonprofit, non-religious primary school in Long Beach. The city has 23 church-related schools and one for-profit private school, said Richard G. Van Der Laan, public information officer for the Long Beach Unified School District.

Tuition at Westerly would be about $6,000 a year, although the cost of educating each child is estimated at $7,500. The school will rely on donations for the difference, Seaver said.

Westerly tuition prices would fall in the middle of the range for the 134 schools in the California Assn. of Independent Schools, Executive Director Mimi Baer said. Tuitions range from $3,000 to $8,000 a year.

"We are not trying to create a socially elite school," Seaver said. "People who criticize us don't understand our philosophy and our goals."

About 10% of Westerly School's operating budget would be devoted to scholarships, she said.

A model budget prepared by Oakland-based educational consultant Stephen Davenport estimated that the school would require about $1 million to open and $1 million a year, including about $100,000 for scholarships.

When the proposal to start the school was reported in a local newspaper last summer, Seaver said, she and her husband fielded hundreds of telephone calls, including one from parents who wanted to register their 6-month-old child.

The board already has received resumes from teachers throughout the area and plans to form the Friends of Westerly School to begin soliciting funds from the community.

Organizers have said the new school most likely will be in east Long Beach.

"We're looking at two sites . . . both with about seven acres of land," said Greg Gill, president of the commercial real estate firm of Matlow-Kennedy and one of the school's original proponents. He said the concept for a Long Beach-based nonprofit, primary school sprang from his need to educate five children.

"My wife and I took a map of the area and plotted the closest private schools, and there was a huge void from Palos Verdes to Newport Beach," Gill said. "We approached the headmasters of three private schools--Polytechnic in Pasadena, Harbor Day in Corona del Mar and Chadwick on the Palos Verdes Peninsula--and asked if they would like to open a campus in Long Beach.

"They told us their schools were designed for their communities and wouldn't work in our city," Gill said. "Plus, they had no interest in opening a second campus."

Gill and his wife held the first meeting for Westerly School in their Park Estates home in January, 1991, hoping to attract a handful of supporters. More than 80 people attended, including parents, educators and City Councilman Les Robbins. From that group arose the board of trustees and $30,000 in pledges.

Some local educators, like Jim Deaton, president of the Teachers Assn. of Long Beach, question the city's need for an independent primary school.

"As a teacher in the district for 27 years, I can tell you I think we already have a variety of schools and programs that present parents with choices," Deaton said.

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