Carpenter Parents Step Up for Kids

You can hear envy in the voice of Los Angeles City Councilwoman Wendy Greuel. It is a subtle envy but one well known to certain parents in Studio City who, like Greuel and her family, live next to, but not in, “The Promised Land.”

“We’re actually just outside the boundary of Carpenter,” Greuel said.

She refers to Carpenter Avenue School, where about 900 kids from kindergarten through fifth grade receive arguably the finest primary education in the notoriously dysfunctional Los Angeles Unified School District. To live within the boundaries of Carpenter, or to get a rare waiver permit allowing your child to go there, is a sought-after prize.

“When you tell people your kids go to Carpenter, they’re like, ‘Ahhhh,'” said Harriet Diament, who has two boys at the school and graduated from there in 1976. “That name has a lot behind it.”

Rare is the public school that has a dinner-dance fundraiser on a soundstage at CBS Studio Center, with Greuel one of several honorees at the May 22 Motown-themed event. Silent auction items included two tickets to this week’s climactic taping of Fox TV’s “American Idol” courtesy of the show’s producer, a Carpenter parent.

But Carpenter once had a rough stretch; the 1990s reclaiming of its strong reputation had a lot to do with committed parents led by an innovative Jewish principal.

“I want parents to be active in their children’s education,” said Joan Marks, Carpenter’s principal from 1985 to 2000 and now the elementary school principal at the Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge.

Located on a speedy, flat stretch of Laurel Canyon Boulevard south of Ventura Boulevard, Carpenter Avenue Elementary School had a solid reputation for teaching kids, many from upper-middle class Jewish families living on winding, Spanish-named streets in the hills above Studio City. With streets named Dona Pegita and Dona Lisa, Jewish children called their neighborhood “The Donnas.”

By the early 1980s, mandatory busing saw parents pulling their kids out of public schools and enrolling them in private schools. The local school populace nearly vanished; of 469 students at Carpenter in 1985, only 60 lived in Studio City. Only seven kindergarteners were locals.

Marks was determined to not let Carpenter face closure by the school district. In August 1985 she met with eight Studio City parents, several of them Jewish, and they began lobbying other parents to bring their kids back to Carpenter. They had booths at local events, passed out flyers, talked to neighbors and rang many Studio City doorbells.

It worked. On the morning in 1993 Carpenter began accepting applications for open enrollment for kids outside the school’s strict residence boundaries, some 60 parents were at the front door, bleary-eyed.

“They actually camped out all night to get in,” Marks said.

The Jewish influence in Carpenter’s rejuvenation is not specifically Jewish like a synagogue, but more Jewish influenced like the broad community work of Bet Tzedek Legal Services. The principal and many Carpenter teachers are Jewish. The 2003-2004 school year had a student body that was 74.7 percent Caucasian, 9.6 percent Latino, 9.1 percent Asian American and 6.2 percent African American.

The 16th annual dinner dance was put on Parents For Carpenter (PFC), the Marks group now headed by Janet Loeb, a Jewish mom who soon will have her fourth child enter Carpenter. Loeb was active in Jewish Federation young leadership activities before PFC, and one of PFC’s incoming co-presidents, Neil Cohen, has been a leader at North Hollywood’s Reform Temple Beth Hillel. PFC funds the school’s music, dance and physical education teacher salaries plus gives money for a media lab and gives stipends for teachers and supplies that poorer schools buy with Title I federal education funding, which Carpenter does not receive due to Studio City’s high income levels.

Standing before about 40 tables of parents, including several actors known for small “Seinfeld” roles, Loeb spoke of Carpenter’s future challenges, including possible school district budget cuts of $50 per child.

“You may be required to pay for books, paper, paper towels and pencils,” Loeb said. “We are here to make sure our kids get the best and I mean the very best.”

The 20-plus aisles of silent auction items included donations from Studio City’s legions of successful entertainment industry executives, Grammy tickets, autographed DVDs, a week in Jackson Hole, Wyo., Dodger dugout seats and a personalized “Spongebob Squarepants” CD by “Spongebob” voice Tom Kenny, a Carpenter parent.

But along with organizing unglamorous fund-raising like car washes, Carpenter parents also can be as demanding of their public school’s teachers as parents paying $20,000 to have their kids at private schools for virtually the same quality of education.

“The parents are there, they’re in your face,” said Nazzi Kaufman, who teaches Carpenter’s gifted class, meaning she interacts with the parents of highly gifted kids.

Her friends who are teachers at other schools sometimes have lonely parent-teacher nights.

At Carpenter, Kaufman said, “Sometimes I have to have double sessions because they’re so involved.”