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The Rise of Roz: How One Wave Became an LAUSD Superstar

By Nate Ethell ('08)

Rosalyn Heyman

It's a textbook summer morning at Gardena High School, located in the heart of the Harbor Gateway neighborhood of Los Angeles, and the 8 a.m. bell has just rung for the first time in months. The hallways are filled with the gleeful squeal of student reunions, occasionally deafened by the metallic slam of locker doors as students quickly shuffle into homeroom. The year is 1947 and 22-year-old Rosalyn Heyman, the newest faculty member in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), sprightly surveys the incoming adolescent faces, eager to welcome her very first class of Gardena High Mohicans to a new academic year.

The scene is one that would become very familiar to Roz, as she is now known to friends. After just one year of putting her UCLA business degree to work, she abruptly left a comfortable accounting job at a major publications firm to pursue her teaching credential in secondary education. Just a few months later, Roz went to work for the nation's second largest school district (enrolling today more than 640,000 students), marking the beginning of a vocation that would span more than four distinguished decades.

Rosalyn Heyman

Before college, however, Roz's meteoric rise wasn't the inevitability it's seen as today. Born in Hollywood at the beginning of the Depression era, Roz was the only child of a single parent—a family dynamic nearly unheard of at the time. "My mother and I had each other, but not much else growing up," Roz says. "My uncle gave my mother $25 a month so we could eat, and I didn't own a new dress until I was almost a teenager."

One possession she did have was a pair of roller skates, which inadvertently helped her land her first job in the film industry. Despite having no money for lessons, Roz gives a mischievous smile when she says she was good on skates. "One afternoon at the rink, a man from the Universal Studios casting office approached me, asking me to give his card to my mother," says Roz. "But like any kid, I quickly forgot about the man and his card." Fortunately, the card was recovered by her mother a week later as she was washing Roz's skating outfit. "So my mother trudged me off to Universal, where we discovered they were looking for a double for Diana Barrymore who could skate."

Rosalyn Heyman

Roz made her screen debut as Barrymore's double in the 1942 film Between Us Girls and later was accepted into the Screen Actors Guild. As Roz began her college career at Los Angeles City College and later UCLA, she covered her tuition as an extra in films—skating in the chorus or serving as a double in features starring Hollywood icons like Barrymore, Sonja Henie, and Jennifer Jones. It was the beginning of a work ethic that proved to be relentless.

"When I was first assigned to Gardena High, I was only allowed to teach five days a week and work two nights a week, so I signed on for two nights teaching in Beverly Hills," says Roz. "I also got a job on Saturdays as a bookkeeper for a bridal gown manufacturing company. I had Sunday to do the laundry."

After Gardena, Roz—or Ms. Shostak, as she was first known to students—began a string of positions around Los Angeles, teaching at Manual Arts High School and Francis Polytechnic High School and later serving as assistant principal for Canoga Park and then Van Nuys High School, where she worked for nine years. Closer to her Woodland Hills home where she still resides today, Roz also was selected to help open El Camino Real High School in 1969.

Rosalyn Heyman

But her pinnacle achievement is Berendo Middle School, where she became principal in 1974. In what became known as the Golden Age of Berendo, Roz began calling the school "Beautiful Berendo," a moniker that lives on today. "When I first arrived and gave it the nickname, people would laugh," Roz remembers. "It was 3,000 kids on a lousy six acres. The place was a real challenge."

Her vision for change, however, was sudden and dramatic, with faculty, parents, and students joining together to improve the school. The facility was painted, rose bushes planted, and graffiti removed. "To remove the graffiti, we bought our agriculture teacher white paint and rollers," says Roz. "He held class early each morning from 7 to 8 a.m., and students were assigned to paint over graffiti before other kids arrived. Needless to say, it didn't get to be any fun to put up graffiti at Berendo."

Other developments were designed to quell student disagreements. "Three thousand kids during the lunch hour could cause fighting and unrest, so we introduced a 10-cent noontime movie in the auditorium that we'd serialize over five days," Roz recalls. "We also sold Good Humor ice cream at cost after school and had teachers secretly remove all weapons from student lockers during first period. The end result was we cut down on a lot of fighting, while making it a fun school too."

Rosalyn Heyman

During Roz's tenure, Berendo was also the first public school in the country to install a computer lab for student learning. During the 1979-1980 school year, 400 Berendo students spent 10 weeks learning basic skills—mostly math—on 24 Control Data computers. Berendo's success was featured in Time and the Wall Street Journal, drawing educators from across the nation to witness the new technology. "Berendo was my most memorable experience with L.A. Unified," she recalls with pride. "We took this underachieving, overcrowded school where everyone spoke a different language—and I smiled a lot—and polished it into a sparkling jewel."

In 1982 Roz was tapped to become the assistant superintendent for secondary education, her final LAUSD assignment before her retirement in 1990. In this role, she spearheaded curriculum, publishing courses of study and special curricular guides that teachers could use as references for their teaching. She also developed a series of 80 half-hour algebra lessons, given to every school, which could be used as a study reference for both teachers and students. The series won a Los Angeles Area Emmy Award for KLCS-TV, the public television station owned and operated by LAUSD.

Rosalyn Heyman

Roz, now 23 years into her retirement, playfully grins when she says her life is still about work. She even continues to administer standardized tests for high school proficiency, college admission, and teacher licenses. After an introduction to Pepperdine in 2005, Roz found a natural alignment for her passions in education, leadership, and philanthropy with the Graduate School of Education and Psychology. The following year, she pledged support to the Rosalyn S. Heyman School Leadership Chair, a major campaign gift that will provide permanent funding for an education specialist who understands issues of governance, learning, and administration of K-12 schools.

"If there's one thing that I've said about this school from the beginning, it's that Pepperdine has heart," says Roz. "Faculty and students care about more than just learning. They care about character. Quite simply, Pepperdine teaches students to leave this world a better place than they found it."

Today Roz, who received an honorary Doctor of Laws from the Graduate School in 2008, faithfully serves on the school's Board of Visitors and campaign committee, providing strategic guidance to help the school reach its $35.6 million campaign goal. "My life was changed as an educator," Roz says. "And after that first day in the classroom so many years ago, I knew I could change a few lives too. By supporting a university that's equipping its extraordinary students for futures in teaching and leadership, I'm just hoping I'll get to change a few more."