Dr. Stu Bernstein has spent 40 years with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) as an elementary school teacher, principal and cluster administrator for Westside schools. On the occasion of his retirement, he was recently feted by the Association of Jewish Educators, with proceeds going toward the Multicultural Scholarship fund he helped establish. The National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ), formerly the National Conference of Christians and Jews, will give Bernstein its Humanitarian Award at an April 26 dinner.
BG: Why did you become a teacher?
SB: I am what you call a generalist. I'm interested in everything: literature, art, music, politics, history, math, science. A good teacher has to be able to integrate the subject matter with everything that's going on in the world.
BG: Why make the move into administration?
SB: It was pure economics. I had a wife; I had two very young kids. Had they been paying teachers what they were paying administrators, I would have stayed in the classroom, because it was a lot more creative.
BG: As chief administrator of the Westside school cluster, didn't you launch some major innovations, including a science and math enrichment program preparing minority students for engineering careers?
SB: That was one of those things that came from my neshoma (soul). It was soul food for me, literally, to do projects like that.
BG: What is the essence of being a good administrator?
SB: Looking at a need and doing something about it, rather than waiting for somebody in a cubicle downtown to devise a program that really doesn't fit. That's the biggest problem with a large district. You have programs that are devised for everybody. I used to say: you catch a cold in San Pedro and you buy Kleenex in Canoga Park.
BG: So how would you fix the district's problems?
SB: They really have to decentralize. [As a cluster head,] if I have 80 schools, those are the skunks I'm dealing with, good ones and bad ones. Let me clean my own skunks. Let those decisions be made by me, and not by central offices, and not by board members who are micromanaging.
BG: Your last assignment within the district involved mediating disputes. You must have seen people at their worst.
SB: And sometimes at their very best. Because the way some people react in terrible situations is quite noble and admirable. I expect people at their best. I'd rather be disappointed than go in and say, "I told you so."
BG: Public schools have gotten a bad rap lately. Is it deserved?
SB: There are public schools that I would not send my children or grandchildren to, but there are public schools that I would send them to over private schools in the area. There are schools now that are making tremendous strides. But people forget -- they never look at L.A.'s excellence. They always look at L.A.'s underbelly.
BG: Why should Jews support public education?
SB: Our central core belief in the Jewish community is tikkun olam. We cannot exist in an environment in which we exclude ourselves from the community in which we live.
BG: What does a Jewish child gain by attending a secular public school?
SB: A Jewish kid doesn't suffer by having a curriculum that is devoted to the contributions and the history of other cultures. A Jewish kid who knows how to deal with other people is greatly served by that. By the same token, his or her family is responsible for providing a Jewish education. One of the sad things is the demise of the cheder, the comprehensive Hebrew school. I went to regular Hebrew classes four days a week, Monday through Thursday. Friday night I was in shul for oneg Shabbat. Shabbas I was at junior congregation.
BG: Your wife Marlene teaches in LAUSD, one son is a teacher and the other is a principal. Given the low salaries and general lack of respect, is a career in education really worth it?
SB: My son [recently] said, "Every day that I'm coming home on the 10, I think back and say to myself, 'You did something good today.'"
For more information about the NCCJ event, call (310) 264-1717.