Paul Cummins is a poet, an author, and educator, a visionary. He changed the landscape of progressive education and the lives of hundreds of children and youth in Los Angeles, many of whom have returned to these schools with their own children.
As Vicky Shorr, co-founder of Archer School for Girls and a long-time colleague in LA's education world put it,
It's easy to look at the kind of progressive education that has become the norm in top schools throughout Los Angeles and assume that it's always been that way, but it hasn't. When Paul Cummins founded Crossroads School, in 1971, the boys at Harvard School were wearing military uniforms, and the girls at Marlborough white gloves. Private school was for the rich, the white, the privileged. But Paul Cummins thought it was time for that to change.
And change it did. Under Paul's direction, Crossroads school proved that school can be fun and engaging. Paul's approach proved that young people can be young people and still get results that parents want: high school graduation and admission to prestigious colleges. But much more important-happy, self-actualized kids with deep sense connection to their community. Students who, upon graduation from high school, college, and graduate school, remain lifelong learners.
As Paul recounts, "I have had college admissions offices and interviewers say over and over that they can pick Crossroads students out of any group of high school applicants-that they have a certain self-confidence and openness which is not the norm."
Paul developed a unique philosophy, that he has come to call "Engaged Education," which includes both the "5 Solids" (English, Math, Science, Foreign Language, and History) and the "5 Other Solids," holding them to be just as important: Art, Outdoor and Environmental Education, Personal Development, Physical Education, and Community Service/Action. At Crossroads, students call teachers by their first names and there is an atmosphere of creative possibility.
So much so, that in 1984, Crossroads School was selected by the U.S. Department of Education as one of sixty exemplary private schools in America. Prior to receiving the award, the school was visited by two representatives of the exemplary schools selection committee (two former school principals) who told Paul, as headmaster at the time, that they "had never seen such a carnival that worked so well."
Paul was delighted, for the word "carnival" captured so much of what he had wanted the school to become when he co-founded it fourteen years before: joy, diversity, warmth, intellectual vitality, a sense of aliveness and creativity, a circus of unique individuals.
Although deeply satisfied with the success of Crossroads, Paul wondered-if this approach works for the privileged youth, would it also work for the less privileged? Paul envisioned that Engaged Education could help kids in the public system and ventured out to visit public schools. He was jolted by the cuts he saw everywhere in arts education. With students and faculty at Crossroads, he formed P.S. Arts to provide arts teachers for elementary schools that no longer had such funding. Now P.S. Arts is an independent nonprofit organization that serves 20,000 students annually in 10 school districts in the Los Angeles area. By providing art, drama, music, and dance teachers, Paul created a program that has changed the lives of kids in schools throughout Los Angeles.
Once Crossroads and P.S. Arts were off and running, it was time for Paul to move forward. He is a man of ideas and often jokes that he is Don Quixote, always chasing dreams that others might think impossible. Yet, even while laughing at himself, Paul keeps dreaming forward. He came up with the idea for a foundation that could allow him a platform to keep creating schools and programs that would help more children and youth. The bottom line, for Paul, is a basic fact: Life isn't fair. Some kids get every opportunity. And some do not.
Paul's deep sense of social justice propelled him to create New Visions Foundation in 1995, whose first endeavor was to create a New Roads School, with a deep commitment to social justice and inclusivity - not just racial but also socio-economic diversity. In fact, New Roads School devotes 40% of its tuition budget devoted to need-based financial aid. New Roads created the Spectrum program for students on the autism spectrum. Engaged Education worked for these kids too, where everyone graduates, and the college admission rate is high.
With the New Visions team, Paul co-created 3 charter schools, one of which was granted LAUSD's first-ever single-sex charter, and thus New Village Charter High School was created for pregnant and parenting teens.
Pretty soon, Paul was invited to visit Camp David Gonzales, a juvenile detention facility in Malibu, and to report what he noticed about their program. Paul noted some problems. He was invited to provide solutions and thus began trying his Engaged Education on incarcerated boys and young men. It worked. New Roads for New Visions was created to provide arts enrichment and life skills classes while the youth are incarcerated and to redirect incarcerated and formerly incarcerated young men into independent schools, colleges, and the mainstream workforce. This program, now called CEE HOPE, has significantly reduced the recidivism rate among its students. It's an anchor program at Camp Gonzales with both public and private funding and has serviced over 1,000 students since its inception. CEE HOPE students have served in the armed forces, graduated from high schools and community colleges, and one is currently a full-scholarship student at UC-Berkeley with the long-term goal of becoming a Supreme Court Justice. More important, CEE HOPE develops the next generation of youth leaders by employing its program alumnae, who advocate for their peers and support their success, helping legions of youth exit the juvenile justice system, permanently.
Meanwhile, Paul was asked to help find placement in independent schools for some foster children. As he learned more about children and youth in foster care and their unmet educational needs, another program was created. Only 2% of former foster youth attend college, although100% say they would like to. But once they turn 18, most have no parent or family either to help them apply to or to help pay for college, or to provide the emotional and practical support they need. They have no one to co-envision this possibility much less help them take the steps to make it real.
Now called CEE FORWARD, this program works to connect youth in the foster system with high-quality educational opportunities. Each youth is individually mentored to co-create an educational plan and is provided with the support he or she needs to succeed-including support that financial aid doesn't cover, such as a laptop computer, tutoring, fees for college entrance exams, warm clothes, sports uniforms, funding to participate in extra-curricular activities, a place to stay during holiday breaks when dorms are closed, and most of all, a caring mentor who stays connected and provides support and assistance through middle and high-school, and college, internships, and even job search to ensure each student is launched into a satisfying, self-sustaining life. CEE FORWARD stays connected with alums as well, and they are invited to co-mentor the next generation.
Currently, Paul is working with his team, now called Coalition for Engaged Education, to change the lives of students in Lennox, a 1.2 square-mile community under the flight path to LAX. Through his daughter, who works as a social worker in the schools there, Paul became aware that many students were showing up to school too traumatized to learn. Alcoholism and domestic violence are pervasive problems, and social workers had nowhere to refer these children and their families. The Coalition, along with community partners, created the JUNTOS trauma center, which, in its first year, surpassed its goal and is now an independent nonprofit that continues to provide urgently needed care for these children and their families. Due to gangs in the Lennox area, many youth matriculating from 8th grade were dropping out, as they were afraid for their own safety to travel to schools in rival territory and had no options. Paul and his team asked the Middle School principal to identify the 20 students most likely to drop out, and created a summer program that provided the kind of enriched education that students at Crossroads enjoy, CEE LENNOX was launched. Staff worked with each student individually to find the right placement for 9th grade. Students attended enrichment activities throughout the year, and every single one is still in school. With each year these students complete, CEE makes a deposit in a bank account, so that when each one graduates, there is $2,500 for them to apply toward a technical school, community college, or university. Most important, once again, each student has a mentor who is connected to provide support and guidance and to ensure the student's success, whatever challenges or setbacks may come up along the way.
With every school and program that Paul co-created, his philosophy became more solid with success. His belief that if you help a child identify a passion and support that child with quality educational opportunities, that child can and will succeed. Elemental is having a caring adult who will stay connected to support the child's success. In many vulnerable children's lives, there is at least one crucial gap, and Paul has created programs to fill those gaps and help children achieve their potential, regardless of their circumstances.
MY HERO is proud to be a part of Paul's vision, which is now realized as the Herb Alpert Educational village and home to twelve non-profit partners who share the goal of providing educational justice for vulnerable youth. The nonprofits share space, resources and knowledge, and form partnerships. Our shared goal is to develop programs that can be exported to, and adapted by, other communities to utilize their unique resources and meet their particular needs.
Paul Cummins is still taking the road less travelled by and, for hundreds and hundreds of children and youth, his vision for what is possible has made all the difference.