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When Principal’s a Grizzly, Campus Life Can Be a Bear

Nidi Lifshitz tells the story of her unfortunate introduction to the Los Angeles Unified School District like this: She answered her cellphone on her daughter’s first day of school and was greeted by a scream -- “This is the worst-behaved child I’ve ever encountered in my life!”

Only later did the caller identify herself as Woodland Hills Elementary School Principal Anna Feig, Lifshitz says. The kindergartner, Feig told her, had crawled under a table and refused to come out. It seems her teacher, new to the job, had called the principal for help and Feig hauled the child into the office. The little girl spent three of the next four days outside the principal’s office -- once, Lifshitz swears, for refusing to use the correct crayon color.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Oct. 05, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 05, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
“School Me” The “School Me” column in Monday’s California section about Woodland Hills Elementary School misspelled the name of a mother, Nivi Lifshitz, as Nidi Lifshitz, and teacher Pam Martens as Pam Mortens.

In later meetings, the mother says, Feig shouted that their child was not welcome at her school unless she started taking Ritalin -- an allegation the principal denies.

The parents kept their daughter home and looked for another school, even though the software developer and her musician husband, Joerg, had just doubled their rent by moving to the neighborhood -- largely because of the school’s high test scores.

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When I finally meet the girl, she’s standing with her father outside another Woodland Hills school. She transferred there after what the parents portray as nasty battles with Feig and a week of nonresponse from the district. The girl, wearing a plaid shirt and white pants, chatters cheerfully as she tosses her vinyl Bratz backpack into her father’s Prius, then pulls herself into her child seat.

This pleasant and precocious demeanor has been rattled, her parents say. She has drawn pictures of the principal as a monster, she has imaginary phone conversations in which she asks the principal not to yell, she has nightmares about Feig.

Given this portrait I drop in on the principal with caution, fearing she’ll turn me into a toad with one blistering stare. I find, instead, a small, almost fragile-looking woman dressed in leopard print, with leopard-print jewelry. She’s seated in a cluttered office, the focal point of which is a purple leopard-spot chair.

Before I’ve finished introducing myself Feig accuses me of misrepresenting the nature of my visit. Then, sensing my befuddlement, she softens.

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“I know my reputation,” she says. “I also know the good things I do.”

After a short visit, Feig says she has a meeting, and I move outside the school’s gates. Nestled in an upper-middle-class neighborhood and shaded with lots of mature trees, the beautifully maintained campus is the nicest I’ve visited in L.A. Unified. The parents -- many of whom say their children attend on permits available to students who live outside the school’s immediate neighborhood -- rave about the academics, the attentiveness of the teachers and the high level of parental involvement. They brag that it’s run like a private school -- that Feig, as several say using the same phrase, “runs a tight ship.”

I’ve been chatting with child-herding, stroller-pushing moms (and a few dads) for perhaps an hour when Feig approaches. Apropos of nothing, she says: “I feel as if I’ve been kicked in the face.”

Pressed, she says that as principal, she’s always the scapegoat for parents who can’t bear to hear honest assessments of their children.

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She can’t discuss individual students, she tells me, then repeatedly brings up the unnamed child in question, saying that even though the girl was extremely disruptive, Feig longed to help her and keep her at the school -- if only her mother weren’t so resistant.

Feig has decades of experience in L.A. Unified and has been at Woodland Hills Elementary for 11 years -- a longevity no other principal was able to achieve, she points out.

I ask why the others fled.

“Because of the parents,” she says.

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There’s a teacher truism, it seems, that “south of the Boulevard” parents (i.e., those who live on the richer, hillier side of Ventura Boulevard) are aggressive and demanding.

As Feig leads me on an impromptu tour, she buttonholes teachers and says: “Tell him about the parents.”

Most concur that although the majority are wonderfully helpful, a minority are unpleasant and, as Feig phrases it, “don’t understand boundaries.”

Before Feig arrived, a couple of teachers say, “parents controlled the school.”

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“I love Anna,” says Pam Mortens, a teacher of 41 years. “Anna will defend us like a mother bear.”

As I leave, I remind myself that the best teachers and administrators have been goal-oriented mavericks who aren’t afraid to offend as they cut through the bureaucracy and simply get things done. But that night Woodland Hills Elementary begins to seem like the realm of some suburban zombie tribe with a dark secret to keep.

“People are scared,” parents and teachers practically whisper into the phone, most pleading for absolute confidentiality as they describe a volatile “tyrant” who rules by browbeating, intimidation and humiliation.

Parent C.J. Josefzon, one of more than two dozen parents and teachers I talk to, was so enraged with the way Feig treated his son that he picketed the school with a sign reading: “Stop the Terror.”

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Denise Miller, a fifth-grade teacher, says that when she first arrived at Woodland Hills, she admired Feig as a tough leader. Her view began to change, she says, as she watched the principal ruthlessly weed out students and parents who might somehow undermine Woodland Hills Elementary’s reputation as an academic powerhouse.

“She sanitizes the school,” Miller says, explaining that Feig finds reasons to yank the permits of students who don’t fit her mold. “They just disappear.”

What really turned her against Feig, though, she says, was watching her frighten and embarrass students. “I won’t let my kids go alone to Anna’s office.” Many teachers won’t, she says.

Why don’t her colleagues speak out?

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“They don’t want to injure the grizzly bear.”

Feig denies cherry-picking students and says she would never embarrass children.

“The only time I raise my voice,” she says, “is if a teacher comes to me and says, ‘Scare them.’ Or, if I’m attacked, I raise my voice.”

Feig downplays her attention to testing, but no one disputes the results. In a district where the average Academic Performance Index growth score is 658, Woodland Hills Elementary this year scored 951. That’s an extraordinary number, even considering the advantage that comes with drawing from an area with relatively few children who qualify for a free or discounted lunch or have trouble speaking English. Some schools in the district approach 100% in each category. Woodland Hills Elementary’s numbers are strikingly low, even compared with nearby elementary schools’.

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Perhaps a mile away, at Lifshitz’s kindergartner’s new school, the percentage of children on free lunch programs and nonnative English speakers is a very low 17% and 10%, respectively. At Woodland Hills those figures are 3% and less than 1%.

Lifshitz and her husband are well aware that their daughter’s new school scored almost 100 API points lower than Feig’s. But the last three weeks have put obsession with test scores in perspective, they say.

Their daughter is happy at the new school. The teacher, Lifshitz says, “never, ever, raises her voice at the kids.”

Not that her daughter has been a perfect student. But, Lifshitz says, she does smile proudly on those days when her teacher sends her home with stars for good behavior.

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To discuss this column or your experiences with principals, visit latimes.com/schoolme. Bob Sipchen can be reached at bob.sipchen@latimes.com.


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