School for Sandals
Originally appeared in Vanity Fair, May 1997
Down an alley, next to a sheet-metal factory just off the Santa Monica Freeway, is a place so exclusive that some of Hollywood’s most powerful players are turned away at the door. It’s not a nightclub, but a prep school: the Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences, a 23-year-old experiment in nontraditional learning that – despite its grungy locale – draws celebrities like moths to a spotlight.
“We look like an urban-renewal poster child,” admits headmaster Roger Weaver, describing the hodgepodge of renovated factory buildings that house Crossroads’ $12,400-a-year middle and upper schools, grades 6 through 12. Nevertheless, he says, “we have turned down, for basic reasons of admissions standards, some of the biggest names around.”
Dustin Hoffman’s son fared better, as did the children of Goldie Hawn, Maximilian Schell, director Lawrence Kasdan, and Ted Danson. And that’s just for starters. Over the years, Crossroads has taught the progeny of Streep, Streisand, Sheen – even the older children of O.J. Simpson (and, for a time, the son of Simpson’s lawyer Robert Shapiro).
But Crossroads, which also has an elementary school, is known as much for its unusual approach to education as it is for its famous names. Besides being academically rigorous, the school requires its students to participate in community service and the arts. No one graduates without taking kayaking, rock climbing, or two other excursions into the great outdoors.
One day a year, classes are dispensed with to allow students to discuss “global issues” such as racism or nuclear power. Athletic programs include yoga and the martial arts. And to cap it all off, students complete a “Mysteries” class – an exercise in self-expression that culminates in a five-day retreat involving chanting and activities based on Native American sweat-lodge rituals.
“To this day, anytime Crossroads people get together they can say these chants,” says one 26-year-old alumnus. “You did them over and over.”
According to Weaver, it’s all part of the Crossroads ethos: to build self-esteem along with G.P.A.’s. He’s heard the whispers about “fringy, over-the-top” programs, but is unapologetic: “We give kids a lot of permission to be who they are.”
And the kids take advantage of it. During a recent lunch period, the lack of dress code was apparent in the tie-dyed T-shirts, overalls, and fatigues. One pink-haired 12-year-old wore a pair of gossamer wings, “because I’m different,” she explained.
Out in the alley, where kids gathered around a gourmet-lunch truck that serves empanadas and meatless burgers (there is no school cafeteria), one student observed that, for all its downscale fashion, Crossroads is no stranger to conspicuous consumption.
“You can tell the teachers’ cars from the kids’,” he said. “The teachers have beat-up Volvos. The kids have Beemer convertibles.” At other schools, pranksters may put thumbtacks on chairs. At Crossroads, they steal one another’s vanity plates.
You don’t have to be rich and famous to go to Crossroads. The school prides itself on its diversity – roughly a quarter of the students are minorities – and this year’s financial-aid budget is $1.7 million. But the support of wealthy families is essential to its survival, which has at times proved troublesome in this tight-fisted town.
Dr. Jake Jacobusse, a former director of the upper school, explains, “So much of the money in L.A. is new money, there’s no tradition for philanthropy.”
Big names bring other complications as well. Like how do you tell somebody with a shelf full of Oscars that he or she needs to spend more time parenting? “The big-star types are not used to people telling them they’re blowing it,” says Weaver. “But sometimes, that’s what they need to hear.”
The school, lauded as exemplary by the U.S. Department of Education, is not without critics. One parent says that for all its creative programming Crossroads’ so-called student-centered focus fails to teach important lessons.
“The kids lose out on the experience of having to deal with things that don’t always suit them,” worries this mother. “Everyone’s bending over backwards to please them.”
But the school must be doing something right. Its orchestra is nationally recognized and its choir world-class. Nearly 100 percent of the students go to college, many to the Ivy League. And the waiting list for admission is legendary, no matter who you are.