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Bob Sipchen / SCHOOL ME

When Principal's a Grizzly, Campus Life Can Be a Bear

October 02, 2006|Bob Sipchen

Nidi Lifshitz tells the story of her unfortunate introduction to the Los Angeles Unified School District like this: She answered her cellphone on her daughter's first day of school and was greeted by a scream -- "This is the worst-behaved child I've ever encountered in my life!"

Only later did the caller identify herself as Woodland Hills Elementary School Principal Anna Feig, Lifshitz says. The kindergartner, Feig told her, had crawled under a table and refused to come out. It seems her teacher, new to the job, had called the principal for help and Feig hauled the child into the office. The little girl spent three of the next four days outside the principal's office -- once, Lifshitz swears, for refusing to use the correct crayon color.

In later meetings, the mother says, Feig shouted that their child was not welcome at her school unless she started taking Ritalin -- an allegation the principal denies.

The parents kept their daughter home and looked for another school, even though the software developer and her musician husband, Joerg, had just doubled their rent by moving to the neighborhood -- largely because of the school's high test scores.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 05, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
"School Me" The "School Me" column in Monday's California section about Woodland Hills Elementary School misspelled the name of a mother, Nivi Lifshitz, as Nidi Lifshitz, and teacher Pam Martens as Pam Mortens.

When I finally meet the girl, she's standing with her father outside another Woodland Hills school. She transferred there after what the parents portray as nasty battles with Feig and a week of nonresponse from the district. The girl, wearing a plaid shirt and white pants, chatters cheerfully as she tosses her vinyl Bratz backpack into her father's Prius, then pulls herself into her child seat.

This pleasant and precocious demeanor has been rattled, her parents say. She has drawn pictures of the principal as a monster, she has imaginary phone conversations in which she asks the principal not to yell, she has nightmares about Feig.

Given this portrait I drop in on the principal with caution, fearing she'll turn me into a toad with one blistering stare. I find, instead, a small, almost fragile-looking woman dressed in leopard print, with leopard-print jewelry. She's seated in a cluttered office, the focal point of which is a purple leopard-spot chair.

Before I've finished introducing myself Feig accuses me of misrepresenting the nature of my visit. Then, sensing my befuddlement, she softens.

"I know my reputation," she says. "I also know the good things I do."

After a short visit, Feig says she has a meeting, and I move outside the school's gates. Nestled in an upper-middle-class neighborhood and shaded with lots of mature trees, the beautifully maintained campus is the nicest I've visited in L.A. Unified. The parents -- many of whom say their children attend on permits available to students who live outside the school's immediate neighborhood -- rave about the academics, the attentiveness of the teachers and the high level of parental involvement. They brag that it's run like a private school -- that Feig, as several say using the same phrase, "runs a tight ship."

I've been chatting with child-herding, stroller-pushing moms (and a few dads) for perhaps an hour when Feig approaches. Apropos of nothing, she says: "I feel as if I've been kicked in the face."

Pressed, she says that as principal, she's always the scapegoat for parents who can't bear to hear honest assessments of their children.

She can't discuss individual students, she tells me, then repeatedly brings up the unnamed child in question, saying that even though the girl was extremely disruptive, Feig longed to help her and keep her at the school -- if only her mother weren't so resistant.

Feig has decades of experience in L.A. Unified and has been at Woodland Hills Elementary for 11 years -- a longevity no other principal was able to achieve, she points out.

I ask why the others fled.

"Because of the parents," she says.

There's a teacher truism, it seems, that "south of the Boulevard" parents (i.e., those who live on the richer, hillier side of Ventura Boulevard) are aggressive and demanding.

As Feig leads me on an impromptu tour, she buttonholes teachers and says: "Tell him about the parents."

Most concur that although the majority are wonderfully helpful, a minority are unpleasant and, as Feig phrases it, "don't understand boundaries."

Before Feig arrived, a couple of teachers say, "parents controlled the school."

"I love Anna," says Pam Mortens, a teacher of 41 years. "Anna will defend us like a mother bear."

As I leave, I remind myself that the best teachers and administrators have been goal-oriented mavericks who aren't afraid to offend as they cut through the bureaucracy and simply get things done. But that night Woodland Hills Elementary begins to seem like the realm of some suburban zombie tribe with a dark secret to keep.

"People are scared," parents and teachers practically whisper into the phone, most pleading for absolute confidentiality as they describe a volatile "tyrant" who rules by browbeating, intimidation and humiliation.

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