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Activist Pushes Top-Notch Education for All

His nonprofits bring the arts and other academic riches to students who'd otherwise miss out.

August 08, 2005|Patricia Ward Biederman | Times Staff Writer

For 22 years, Paul Cummins was founding headmaster of one of the most elite and offbeat private schools in Southern California. Crossroads, in Santa Monica, combines the arts, environmental education and community service with traditional academics and is the kind of place where agents scout talent at the senior play. But shortly before Cummins stepped down in 1993, he decided to find out how children were faring in public schools in less-coveted area codes.

What he saw shocked him.

"Two things appalled me: the complete absence of the arts in the schools and how segregated they were," he said.

Cummins responded by calling on musician and philanthropist Herb Alpert and others who also are alarmed about the disappearance of the arts from most public schools. The result was P.S. Arts, a nonprofit organization that puts instruction in music, visual arts, drama and dance into public schools and whose celebrity-dense fundraisers regularly command double-page spreads in People magazine.

"He's not a guy who accepts the status quo, for sure," said Thom Mayne, winner of architecture's Pritzker Prize in 2005. Mayne admires Cummins' "big, expansive mind" and his ability to put the project, not his ego, in the foreground. Cummins has, Mayne said, "the will, the energy and the political acumen -- and the social acumen -- to go out and make things happen."

Founded in 1991, P.S. Arts now helps about 13,000 children draw and sculpt, play the recorder and perform in their own plays in 25 public schools in Southern and Central California.

In 1995, Cummins launched the New Visions Foundation. Its first project was to start a college prep school for those unlikely to go to schools such as Crossroads. Minorities make up half the 465 students at private, nonprofit New Roads school in Santa Monica. About 60% of the student body receives financial aid.

At New Roads, students can join Amnesty International as well as the debate team, and parents are urged to teach after-school courses in their areas of expertise. The school has graduated six classes so far. Every graduate has gone to college.

New Visions also helped start two charter schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District in predominantly Latino neighborhoods. Another charter school for single mothers is being discussed.

New Visions also has a program at Camp David Gonzalez, a youth detention center in Malibu that tries to keep detainees from returning to prison by helping them discover their interests and talents, and by finding them jobs or school placements after their release.

Now 67, Cummins graduated from Harvard School (now Harvard-Westlake School) and Stanford University. A poet as well as an educator and social entrepreneur, he has a master's degree in teaching from Harvard University and a doctorate in English from USC.

Nathan Reynolds, until recently headmaster of Monica Ros School in Ojai, was four years ahead of Cummins at Harvard School. Early in their careers, the two returned to their alma mater to teach English. Reynolds remembers mornings spent with Cummins in the faculty lounge, drinking cup after cup of coffee and talking about how they would run the world.

Reynolds recalls Cummins as a young teacher who experienced intellectual discovery with giddy pleasure and believed in the power of learning to transform lives.

Even then, teaching the children of the elite, Cummins worried about the other children, and insisted that a top-notch education was the right of every child and that every true education must include the arts, Reynolds recalled.

"He has been absolutely true to those ideas and never wavered," Reynolds said.

Cummins likes putting ideas into action. Several years ago, after Los Angeles philanthropist Peter Morton offered to pay for some foster children to attend private schools, Cummins began calling the headmasters and headmistresses in his expansive Rolodex. To allay any misgivings they had and to maximize the students' chances of success, the New Visions Foundation hired a staffer to vet the foster children before placing them.

So far, the foundation has found spots in independent schools for almost 60 foster children, all on full scholarships.

"They're all doing moderately well to swimmingly well," Cummins said, pointing out that all seven who have graduated have gone to college.

P.S. Arts Executive Director Sheila Bergman said she believes Cummins is able to innovate again and again because he doesn't suffer from "founder's syndrome."

"Once all the players and pieces are in place, he moves on," she said.

During Cummins' decades at Crossroads, he told every new class more or less the same story about his intellectual awakening.

He was standing in the freshman registration line at Stanford when another entering student asked what he was reading.

"What do you mean?" Cummins recalled answering. "Classes haven't started yet."

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