Why This Private School in Santa Monica Snagged a Million Bucks From Annenberg

A million dollar grant would help any educational institution, especially those with limited means. So why would Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences, catering to the children of L.A.’s elite, get an Annenberg Foundation award in that amount when the school already charges tens of thousands of dollars a year in tuition?

The school excels in several areas the foundation deems essential for receiving financial support. Experience, expertise, and commitment are considered vital. Crossroads was co-founded in 1971 as an alternative college preparatory K-12 school by Paul Cummins, a Stanford grad who earned his master’s in teaching at Harvard and his Ph.D. in English at U.S.C. The current Head of School, Bob Riddle, 57, has worked at Crossroads for 31 years. He began his career there in 1984 as a life skills and math teacher. Drawing on his master's degree in educational administration from Columbia University Teachers College, he took over the school after stints as Assistant Headmaster and Dean of the Faculty. Noteworthy is his co-founding of the Los Angeles chapter of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

Does the school show the visionary leadership Annenberg wants? From the start the school committed itself to five basic commitments: to academic excellence; the arts; the greater community; the development of a student population of social, economic, and racial diversity; and to "the development of each student’s physical well-being and full human potential."

Academic excellence can take many forms. The traditional model of American prep school offers a rigorous curriculum with a sink-or-swim ethos. Crossroads’ attitude is markedly different, with a faculty that provides a supportive, understanding environment so that students take intellectual risks, learning from their mistakes. Demanding coursework is a key part of the curriculum, although creativity and problem solving are encouraged. Crossroads’ methods are said to foster students' self-confidence. Evan Spiegel, the co-founder and CEO of the mobile application Snapchat, learned his lessons well at Crossroads as did the Michael Heyward, 27, the CEO of Whisper, the secret sharing app.

Although arts education is taking a hit at other schools, it’s being pursued with vigor at Crossroads. Choral and instrumental music, dance, drama, visual arts and writing are all taught by specialists. One teacher, Jim Hosney, split his time between Crossroads and the American Film Institute. As Cummins put it, “The arts develop leadership: in every artistic endeavor the best artists are pushing the boundaries of human knowledge, expanding the breadth and understanding of human experience, and creating for the world something that was not there before.”

Among its alums, Crossroads includes Hollywood luminaries Kate Hudson, Jonah Hill, Jack Black, Gwyneth Paltrow and Zooey Deschanel.

Annenberg assesses whether or not its grant applicants will have a wider impact on a community as a whole. Crossroads requires that all its students take part in community service. Just one of the school’s efforts, PSScience, offers an “exploration-based weekly science experience to students in grades 1-3 at underserved schools.”

The Annenberg Foundation’s million-dollar grant is for a 16-month period that ends in March 2016, to support a Science Education and Research Facility "to house the middle and upper school science programs, becoming a living laboratory, enabling students and teachers to interact with the facility creatively.” If the past is truly prologue, then Annenberg should be pleased with the creative use of its money.