Seventeen years ago, two men met on the side of Pacific Coast Highway to discuss the future.
That day, Al Friedenberg had been offered the principal position at Grant Elementary School and was driving along PCH to his home in Thousand Oaks. Phil Cott, his best friend since eighth grade and now colleague, was heading the opposite direction from his job leading Webster Elementary back to West Los Angeles.
In the days before hands-free devices the two coordinated their opposite drives and pulled over to the side of the road to celebrate their good fortune and what Cott believes was one of the best decisions the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District could have made.
Almost two decades later, the journey begun that day on the side of the road is coming to an end. Friedenberg announced his plans to quit the district for other ventures, leaving behind both a school that parents and colleagues say is fundamentally transformed and a pair of large shoes to fill.
Friedenberg, and by extension Grant Elementary, never stops moving.
He waits at the front entrance to greet kids as they enter the campus, organizes Jog-a-thons and even teaches every class in the fourth grade about law, a curriculum previously restricted to those in an advanced program.
Movie nights, a silent auction and bingo games list amongst the events that Friedenberg has attended, coordinated or supported at the campus in the last month alone.
“And I’m sure someone has told you about dodge ball,” said Amy Levin, a Grant parent, perennial volunteer and chair of the Department of Social Work at California State University Northridge.
Nobody had, in fact, but it’s one of the things that Friedenberg is best known for, in part because he organized the league, but mostly because he watches most if not all of the games, referees and even keeps statistics on the players.
It’s an impossible pace to keep up for months and years on end while balancing the legally-mandated minutia of administration, but Friedenberg used his own dynamic personality to harness the energy of the parents, teachers and students at Grant to create a school that others recognize as a hotbed of creativity.
“Grant is a microcosm of the real world,” Levin said. “It has such diversity and yet most of the families are engaged and involved and you feel that. That comes from the top down.”
The turning point
By Friedenberg’s own account, his career in education began as something of a happy accident.
Friedenberg was studying accounting at CSU Northridge in the early 1970s when Cott, who was on the path to become an attorney, approached him with the idea to coach Cott’s younger brother’s Little League team.
Both had experience in the sport, Cott as a left fielder and Friedenberg as a pitcher. He’d even played for the Northridge team before his arm began to show the ravages of pitching, and he happily agreed to the proposal as a way of continuing his connection with the game.
It was the first time that either had taken on education, and the connection to the kids was a life-altering experience.
Three years into an accounting degree, he left Northridge to go to UCLA to study sociology and both he and Cott enrolled in Ed 100, the entry level course for those interested in a degree in teaching.
It stuck, and in 1973, Friedenberg had his first teaching position at Conejo Elementary School in Thousand Oaks.
It paid $8,400 a year. Gas cost 26 cents for a gallon and rent was $150 a month. Friedenberg felt he had it made.
“At 23, I knew what I wanted to do,” he said.
Classrooms in California of the 1970s were different environments than they are today. Absent were proscriptive federal mandates and the scourge of standardized testing that causes so many teachers to adhere to what Friedenberg views as safe, but boring, methods of teaching.
“I was allowed to figure it out, to create,” he said. “I don’t know if I would have stayed today.”
Friedenberg’s experimentation yielded results with a side of controversy.
A religious organization came after him for a spelling program that was based on modern rock songs and classic texts (a letter to the editor in the local newspaper read “There’s a certain sixth grade teacher in the Conejo Valley promoting sexual promiscuity, drugs, death defiance and failure”) and 10 years later a student performed a speech dressed as Adolph Hitler that incited a conflagration of public opinion.
In the summers, he and a group of other teachers began a private summer school called The Learning Center. It was successful, and gave Friedenberg his first chance at administration, a position that married his early interest in numbers and business with his new passion for education.
“You are an entrepreneur as much as you are an educator,” Friedenberg said.
One master’s degree in business later, Friedenberg felt he was prepared to take over the reins of a school. The teaching community, however, did not agree.
It took three years to make the jump from teacher to principal. He would get to the finals, but in the end the administration would go with the candidate with more experience as a principal.
When they finally overcame their fear of taking a chance on the young teacher, Friedenberg got two calls from two different schools in his district on the same night.
He was with his first school for two years when Neil Schmidt called.
Schmidt was the superintendent of the school district at the time, and had been watching Friedenberg’s career. He invited him to apply for the opening at Grant Elementary.
“His words were, ‘Why would you want to leave a cushy job to go to Santa Monica?’” Friedenberg recalled.
After some soul searching, Friedenberg put his name in the hat and began traveling to Santa Monica for interviews.
“I felt like I was having an affair,” the principal said.
When the next school year began, it was Friedenberg that greeted new Grant students into their elementary school.
The hard part
Over the last 17 years, Friedenberg has fundamentally shaped the character of Grant Elementary.
It has a reputation for excellence, creativity and vast community involvement, despite the constant challenges of funding and requirements laid down at the state and federal level that hem in teachers’ flexibility.
Friedenberg paved the way as he could, laying down a policy that proved to his staff that as long as students met the standards they had to meet by the end of the school year, he didn’t care how they got there.
That was made more difficult by Grant Elementary’s demographics. According to a recent report, 28 percent of the students are socioeconomically disadvantaged. By district policy, only four elementary schools receive federal funding meant to support those students.
Grant is not one of them.
As he balanced budgets and preserved what he could, Friedenberg maintained a constant presence on campus, attending as many events as possible — especially those with free food — and got the tedious work done when no one was looking.
Sometimes, that meant waking up at 2 a.m. afraid that a critical e-mail hadn’t been sent or a task had gone unfinished.
At the same time, budget cuts trickling down from Sacramento and the teaching profession switched its focus from fighting for improvements to fighting for its life.
“People don’t see the toll,” Friedenberg said.
A number of personal problems including a winning battle against prostate cancer forced the 62-year-old to take a step back and look at both his desire to continue as a professional educator and the state of the school that he had served for so many years.
It was time to go while it was still on his own terms, Friedenberg decided.
“I didn’t want to go out broken, in controversy or bitter,” he said.
The next steps
Friedenberg’s retirement, effective in June, will open up a world of opportunities for him and a vacancy at the top spot in a school used to having high expectations for its administrators and seeing them rise to the occasion.
He, his wife Karen Koblitz, a ceramics professor at USC and their newly-graduated daughter will go on vacation to celebrate their new situations, and then he’s considering consulting for education or mentoring.
Learning a new musical instrument is out of the question, he said.
At Grant, a group of parents and school officials will begin the difficult task of finding someone to take over for the 2012-13 school year.
Friedenberg’s almost inhuman energy and wide breadth of passions would be difficult for anybody to replace, and he and Cott have ruminated on what programs will stay and which will fall to the wayside under a new leader, Cott said.
“There will not be another person like Al,” Cott said. “That profile, that individual way of looking at things and doing things, that is not really what the system looks for in school administrators. They’re lucky when they find it by accident, but they don’t really look for it.”