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Topics / TEACHING : Headmaster Knows First Name of All 320 Students

October 06, 1994|CAROL CHASTANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One minute the teacher was pointing to a human skeleton, discussing anatomy with a group of eighth-graders. Seconds later, he segued into a talk about the brutality that often accompanies discrimination.

Somehow, it all fit.

"There was a time in India, where a group of people were known as the 'Untouchables,' " explained Les Frost, headmaster of St. Matthew's Parish School in Pacific Palisades. "They were the lowest class, and in that society it was OK to beat these people."

The skeletons used in his human biology class, added Frost, were from India. "No one wanted to touch their bodies when they had died, so they were sold to science."

Instead of staying in his headmaster's office, Frost is out there in the trenches, teaching science classes. Frost says he knows all 320 students, kindergarten through eighth grade, by their first names. "He's like a third parent," said eighth-grader Sean Orr.

Frost was named a 1994 National Distinguished Principal by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Assn. of Elementary School Principals. He was one of five private school teachers in the country so honored, and one of two--the other is in Chula Vista--in California to receive the award.

Frost was formally presented with the award last Friday in Washington. Those who work with him say the prize was well-deserved, citing accomplishments ranging from the school's innovative approach to community service to its ambitious computer education program.

"In the 10 years Les Frost has been at St. Matthew's, he has taken a respected, good school, and made it great," said the school's admission director, A. Lee Quiring, in his nomination letter.

"This is the first award I've ever received," said Frost, who lives on the St. Matthew's campus with his wife and daughter, 17. (His 22-year-old son, who attends Santa Monica Community College, does not live at home.) "I'm pleased."

Frost, 51, started teaching 23 years ago after working one year as a pharmacist. He said his wife, Marilyn, a teacher, "would tell me these wonderful stories about what happened at school that day. It intrigued me."

So he returned to school--to UCLA, where he earned a teaching credential. His first assignment was at a Los Angeles Unified School District middle school.

"The kids were wonderful, and there were plenty of dedicated teachers, but because of the bureaucracy and class sizes, it was difficult to try to make a difference in the lives of the kids you taught," Frost said.

In 1972 he took a teaching position (as in the previous job, his subject was science) at what was then the Westlake School for Girls. He became the school's assistant headmaster before leaving in 1984 to take the headmaster's position at St. Matthew's. Although he says he regretted that he would no longer be a full-time teacher, he saw the headmaster's post as an opportunity to become involved with students in new ways--not only as a teacher, but also as an adviser, he said.

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Largely because of his encouragement, all of St. Matthew's teachers have become computer-literate, said Roberta McCuskey, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade math and computer science.

Then Frost went a step further.

School officials say he organized fund-raisers that financed the construction of five computer labs on campus. Now students receive weekly computer instruction and use a variety of educational software programs. Eighth-graders explore their family trees in history classes and use computer programs to write reports that include text, animation, artwork and sound.

"He gives us the trust and confidence to create new ways of teaching," said McCuskey, who has taught 17 years at the school.

Although community service is a requirement at many private schools, Frost added a twist: He encouraged students to become philanthropists. Student leaders organize fund-raisers--not for dances, but to make donations to community groups. Last year the students raised $5,000 for a Venice day-care center.

"Creating ways to raise money, and really making a difference in the community, has great meaning for the children," Frost said.

Teachers, meanwhile, say Frost has also shown concern for their development. He created a summer grant program in which faculty are paid to attend workshops to improve their curriculum and teaching skills.

Frost was nominated by parents, administrators and the National Assn. of Episcopal Schools. A panel of educators representing the Washington-based Council of Private American Education reviewed the applications. It also sent a representative to the school to size up the campus and the nominee. Officials said 10 private school principals were nominated this year.

Robert Kealey, who sat on the selection panel, says Frost stood out.

"(He) has done an outstanding job in all areas, from encouraging parental involvement to his assistance with teachers in terms of staff development," said Kealey, an official with the National Catholic Education Assn., a grouping of administrators for Catholic schools.

Frost says the accomplishment he is most proud of is getting to know each student. That, he says, helps create an environment in which each child feels he or she counts.

The point was made eloquently in a letter he once received from a former St. Matthew's student as she was about to enter ninth grade at a private high school. Frost said she wrote: "I don't know if the headmaster will ever know my name."

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