Reviving a Public School

Four years ago, when Robyn Ritter Simon’s eldest son was ready to start kindergarten, she looked at her local public school and found it lacking. It was not that Canfield Elementary School fell short academically. The Simons live in a West Los Angeles neighborhood that is heavily Jewish and her son would have been one of the few white children — and perhaps the only Jewish child — in his class.

Simon, who grew up in West Los Angeles and met her husband at Emerson Junior High School, was a strong believer in the public school experience. So she won permission to shlep Brandon to Westwood Charter Elementary, a school she regards as a model of enlightened diversity. Still, she continued to look longingly at the school down the street, wishing she could bring to Canfield some of the strong neighborhood support that made Westwood Charter so attractive.

In 1996, while pushing her twins in their stroller, Simon met three other mothers who shared her hopes for Canfield. Though their children were still toddlers, they began to strategize, working closely with principal Sylvia Rogers to address Canfield’s needs. Each of the four found her own area of expertise. Denise Neumann, a former interior designer, dug gardens, organized campus beautification days, and ultimately became president of the Friends of Canfield booster club. Nicole Gorak, a photographer with a background in public relations, spread the word to other parents and owners of local businesses. Teresa Grossman, who works as a bookkeeper for actors and musicians, learned the art of grant writing and helped Canfield win funds for new playground equipment. Simon, a journalist who once hosted a public affairs television show, lobbied Los Angeles Unified School District bureaucrats on Canfield’s behalf.