By Ed Pilolla
Paul Cummins, an education reformer his entire adult life, says America goes about teaching its kids the wrong way, beginning with funding.
At inner-city schools, about $6,000 is spent per student. This is not the case at elite private schools, two of which Cummins founded in Santa Monica, Crossroads and New Roads. At these top-end private schools and others across the country, upwards of $32,000 a year is spent on each student.
Although this disparity of quality has been true for generations, Cummins hopes a sense of injustice will feed change.
“Change is going to come from the ground up, not the top down,” Cummins says. “And it’s got to come from each individual citizen in this country getting angry about the basic unfairness that’s going on.”
Arts programs are often absent from curriculum, and standardized testing is a bad way to go about truly educating a human being, says Cummins, who has written two volumes of poetry and three books on education as well as a biography of holocaust survivor. He has a master’s degree in teaching from Harvard University and a doctorate in English from USC. But he’s best known for the lives he has touched through the classroom.
After founding Crossroads School in 1971, Cummins worked as the headmaster for 22 years. It’s a place where traditional courses are blended with the arts, community service and environmental education. A year after stepping down in 1993, Cummins began the New Visions Foundation, which launched New Roads School for many kids considered long shots to attend a prestigious private school, or even make it in life. Nearly half of the student body receive financial aid and are minority students.
The foundation has been placing foster children in private schools, magnet schools and charter schools for more than a decade, as well as working with incarcerated youth at Camp David Gonzales in Malibu where instructors give students an educational vision of what they can do with their lives. After their release, New Visions finds them a job or a desk in a school to continue their education.
New Visions has also begun three charter schools in under-privileged Latino neighborhoods within Los Angeles Unified School District, and most recently entered into a memorandum of understanding with the Lennox School District to assist with programs for the emotional, social, and educational needs of the kids in there. Basically, New Visions is acting as a broker looking for partners and outside funding sources to grow something healthy and positive for the children in Lennox, says Emily Cummins Polk, Cummins’ daughter.
Cummins Polk is a school-based social worker and therapist in Lennox who attended Crossroads School. She was steered into school-based social work by a school counselor and close family friend. In the fall, the school district will look to offer a mentor program for girls through New Visions. Her father was approached by a group of professionally trained women interested in starting such a program, she said.
“My dad networks with people excited by projects he is working on, and they want to get involved,” said Cummins Polk.
The school recently finished construction on a new campus in Santa Monica at the Herb Alpert Educational Village on Olympic Avenue. With money from the foundation, the school constructed an impressive new building it calls the The Capshaw-Spielberg Center for Arts and Educational Justice, which includes the stunning Ann and Jerry Moss theater.
For many years the educational village was a major fundraising project for Cummins. Now, he says, it will host conferences and workshops on foster education, the juvenile justice system and other programs for the most highly at risk youth.
To make it all happen, Cummins does his share of fundraising, but his passion is revealing opportunities for kids discarded by society. He points to the education system in Finland as a model, where testing is rarely done. Unlike the U.S., Finish teachers are given the proper resources and the freedom to be innovative.
“We put all sorts of restrictions on our teachers,” he says. “At best [standardized tests] mean you’ve taught them how to answer other people’s questions—but not to frame your own questions, not to think creatively, to get out of the box.”
“So you have this ridiculous situation where you have companies complaining that they can’t find creative employees. And then you have an educational system that is designed to produce standardized thinking,” he says.
Cummins, who outlined his view of how American corporations have cheated the American educational system in his book Two Americas, Two Educations (2006 Red Hen Press), would have wealthy individuals and multi-national companies pay taxes on a progressive education basis with no exceptions. This would cut out the gaping tax loopholes, and Cummins would also cut our military bases in half. After all, we have a thousand military bases around the world, he says.
“What the hell is that for, other than to soak up money to keep the military industrial complex fed, and then we tell our inner city teachers, ‘Sorry, you don’t have enough money for books,’” he says.
American teachers get shortchanged on more than funding. They aren’t trained to be out-of-the-box thinkers themselves, according to Cummins.
“They were trained by the previous teachers in public education, and generally speaking it’s not designed to produce radical thinkers,” he says. “It’s designed to inculcate youth into the existing culture. And the existing culture is fairly materialistic and anti-intellectual and hostile to the arts, so that even when you do a good job, you don’t graduate very enlightened students.”
Enlightened students receive a balanced education that makes them more aware politically, socially, aesthetically and artistically, he says.
Kelly Kagan Law received that sort of education at Crossroads. Cummins was her English teacher. She graduated in 1992 and attended USC but kept returning to visit and talk to her mentor about life and career. Kagan Law ended up working for Cummins as Vice President of programs at the foundation.
“I’m sure other people like the board [of directors] probably gets frustrated with how he doesn’t only think of this place,” Kagan Law said. “To him, this place is the whole city, state, country, and it’s always about how we can do more. He’s never satisfied. He has gratitude, but he’s always aware that there are more kids we can be helping. So we say we are serving these 25 and he says, ‘What about those other 25,’ so it’s just endless.”
Cummins believes that in addition to providing meaning and purpose, the function of education is to bring joy into people’s lives.
“The role of education it seems to me is to educate people to be more concerned with their fellow citizens, to develop a greater sense of fairness and to realize that all human beings have one home, this earth,” Cummins said.