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The Education of Patrick McCabe

Everyone Is Talking About Education Reform. At Least One Guy Decided to Do Something About It.

October 06, 2002|ANDY MEISLER | Andy Meisler is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. He last wrote for the magazine about the Professional Bowlers Assn.

On Monday, July 2, 2001, 45-year-old Patrick S. McCabe took up the post of Head of School and CEO at the elementary and middle school campus of Newbridge School, a private educational institution. Newbridge's K-8 facility is located primarily in four wooden bungalows rented from the Good Shepherd Baptist Church at 16th and Pearl, cater-corner from Santa Monica College.

That morning McCabe discovered that Newbridge School had debts of nearly $250,000 and a total of $900 in cash. That week he met a polite IRS employee named Lester, who presented McCabe with an overdue payroll tax bill for $130,000. McCabe also learned that Newbridge was being sued by a former administrator, represented by Gloria Allred's law firm, who claimed her firing had been the result of sexual discrimination.

Three weeks later McCabe came to work and found that during the weekend someone had broken into Newbridge and stolen the computers and office equipment. Also, the school's pet puffer fish, Mr. Fugu, was dead. When two Santa Monica cops arrived, one mentioned that school thefts were common in the neighborhood. McCabe, outraged at the very notion, became agitated and had to be told firmly to calm down.

It might be timely to mention here that Pat McCabe is (a) 6-foot-4 and weighs 290 pounds; (b) a child of privilege, a devoted husband and father, and affluent by any conceivable definition of the word; (c) a person who had neither taught at nor administered any private or public school before July 2, 2001; and (d) was exactly 21 days into the most challenging, frustrating and personally fulfilling year of his life.

Last month, to not-quite-unanimous acclaim, McCabe started another school year at the helm of Newbridge--and another turn in his corkscrew journey through the American Dream. He hasn't exactly taken a scholastic vow of poverty. And unlike former Colorado politico-turned-Los Angeles Unified School District honcho Roy Romer, he hasn't taken on the challenge of turning around a 750,000-student urban school system. But let's face it: These days, when everyone from W on down has his own pet theory on how to solve the nation's educational woes, McCabe has gotten his hands dirtier and gotten closer to the solution than any think-tank theorist.

Even before Pat McCabe became only the second head of School in the 30-year history of Newbridge--after walking away from a sports/television/marketing career for which millions of middle-aged men would have traded every remaining hair on their heads--a persistent buzz had developed about him in certain upper-income sectors of Los Angeles. Other observers who knew a good story line when they heard one were also intrigued:

Was McCabe a saint? A dilettante? A point of light? A bull in a China shop? A dose of corrective medicine for an outmoded institution mired in the 1960s? Or maybe just a rich guy working through a midlife crisis?

At 8:45 a.m. on a Friday last fall, an invited guest perched on a metal folding chair at Newbridge's weekly All-School Meeting. In a long, narrow loft located directly over the church's pews sat 85 students. They ranged from giggling kindergartners in the first row to determinedly blase 11th graders in the rear. Their diverse mix of races, nationalities, sizes and shapes would have warmed the heart of many a TV sitcom casting director.

During a brisk 30 minutes, the student body heard, among other things, Juliet Biederman, Newbridge's 32-year-old school director, read a letter from the director of a local theater company praising the contributions of a blushing sixth grader to the theater's special post-Sept. 11 performance. A seventh grader played a tuneful rendition of a Bach prelude on his cello. Two guitar-playing teachers led a sing-along of one of the school's favorites, "Why Must I Be a Teenager in Love?"

During those proceedings, Pat McCabe, wearing khakis and a polo shirt, stood off to one side, arms crossed and working hard to look headmasterly. McCabe's main contribution to the program was to step front and center and announce, in his capacity as head coach of two of the three athletic teams at Newbridge, a nugget of good news: the middle school boys basketball team, which because of enrollment limitations has only seven players (including a guard and a forward who, technically, are girls) had that week defeated Willows School, a rival so big and strong that it even has its own rooftop court.

"What are our priorities when we play sports?" he said.

"Have fun," came the ragged response.

"And?" said McCabe.

"Try your hardest," chanted the students.

"And the third and most important?"

A slight delay.

"Sportsmanship?" ventured one or two brave souls.

"That's right," said McCabe. "Now, everyone!"

"Sports! Man! Ship!" said the students and adults, in unison.

"When i told my family i was going to take this job," McCabe said a few minutes later from behind his desk, "my son started crying. He said, 'Are we going to lose our Lakers tickets?' "

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