Curtis Oral History Project

Curtis School, founded in 1925 by Carl Curtis primarily as a swim school, has seen many changes in nearly nine decades of existence. Foremost among those changes, Curtis became an academic school for students in the primary (and later, secondary) grades. In the course of its long history, Curtis has had several homes. From its first campus on Beverly Place near Fairfax, the school moved to St. Victor’s Church in West Hollywood, and from there to a site in Culver City, before settling on the spacious Santa Monica mountaintop it occupies today. At one time, the junior high resided apart from the lower grades, in the San Fernando Valley. Curtis has graduated thousands of children through the years. But however different the eras and campuses through which they passed, traditions and threads of shared experience connect students of the past to the Curtis of today. Some traditions have continued and the essence of others still resonates in new ways. The Curtis Oral History Project has been created to capture and document the history and traditions of our school and to preserve them for the future.

Alumni 30 Year Celebration

  • Alumni Association Honors Five Curtis Faculty Members

    The Curtis Alumni Association honored Debbie Atkinson, Marna Biederman, David Pappin, Kathie Reed and Dotti Serrao for 30 years of dedicated service to Curtis School and thousands of children in a gala celebration in the Kissick Pavilion on November 13, 2008. Five young alumni introduced the evening’s honorees to an audience of several hundred alumni, alumni parents and former and current colleagues. Their memories and profiles of the beloved teachers evoked nostalgia and at times moved the listeners to laughter and tears. Following are the transcripts of the presenter’s remarks.

    Debbie Atkinson
    Introduced by Nick Melvoin

    Good evening, I’m Nick Melvoin, graduate of the Curtis sixth grade class of 1998, and it is my privilege tonight to introduce our first honoree. I think it’s especially appropriate that librarian Debbie Atkinson comes first because the library is the cornerstone of Curtis School, the place where we as students come to love the look, feel, and smell of books; where we discover that reading can be fun and that knowledge is a lifelong pursuit.

    I can’t imagine Curtis School without the library, and it is no exaggeration to say that the Library is Debbie Atkinson and that Debbie Atkinson is the Library. She started it, sustained it, and continues to make it the joyful center of learning that we all cherish.
    In preparing these remarks, however, I was surprised to discover that Miss Atkinson — as I’m used to calling her — didn’t start out here as a librarian, but as a teacher.

    A quick biography is in order. After graduating from Wake Forest in 1972, Debbie moved to L.A. in 1976, and began teaching upper level English at Curtis in 1978 at the old St. Victor’s campus in West Hollywood. Her classroom was a converted chapel. While teaching for the next seven years, Debbie began to solicit donations for a school library, and in 1985 became Curtis’ first full-time librarian. Under her stewardship, the Library has grown from a humble beginning of fifteen hundred volumes to over twenty thousand today.

    While amassing such an impressive collection, Debbie found time to earn her library credential at Cal State Long Beach in 1991. But what I remember most about Miss Atkinson was that she always made the library fun. She is a perpetual innovator, creating special days, games, and programs to keep the library fresh and exciting. Author Day, “Who Loves that Book?,” Read Across America, the Caldecott Battle of the Books, Crazy Hair Day. The list goes on and on.

    For all that she has done to promote a love of books and a love of learning, the Curtis Community owes its founding librarian our enduring gratitude and appreciation. She continues to demonstrate that at its best a library can be both a cathedral for our highest thoughts and a playroom for our wildest dreams. It is my great pleasure to honor Debbie Atkinson.

    Marna Biederman

    Introduced by Scott Wilson

    This next honoree always thought that being a politician would be the most interesting career, little did she know that as a teacher, she would spend over 30 years, taking children to our nation’s capitol, instilling them with a lifelong sense of patriotism and a wealth of political knowledge.

    Mrs. Biederman, or as most call her, Mrs. B., grew up in Manhattan, New York. She received her undergraduate degree at Connecticut Masters College, and her Adelphia Lifetime teaching credential at New York State. When her husband’s job relocated the family to Los Angeles, a friend introduced her to Baddy and to Curtis. Mrs. B. had originally planned on staying in LA a short time, but when a position opened for the following school year, she jumped at the opportunity, and officially joined the Curtis family in 1978. She commented at the time, “There was such a family feel to the place and the teachers all helped each other all the time.”

    Mrs. B’s life-long pride in America, love of politics, and a simple promise to her father inspired her to start taking her students to Washington DC and the surrounding areas. Starting as a bus trip when she was a teacher in New York, and continuing the tradition after moving to Curtis, she started the “LA to DC” trip, which soon became one of the most meaningful and memorable experiences for the sixth grade class.

    A well orchestrated, military style trip starts by visits to the Liberty Bell, Gettysburg, and the Esh Family Amish Farm. Continuing on we are welcomed by Mrs. B. into Washington D.C., by a speech about patriotism, the importance that each citizen has in our government and the fact that DC is “OUR” city. This happens as we all get our first glance at the monuments, the capitol, and the National Cathedral, while driving over the Memorial Bridge and past the Pentagon to our first appointment, which presumably is a Supreme Court Justice, Senator or other key player on Capitol Hill arranged many times thru relationships forged by Mrs. B. over the many years.

    One of the most memorable parts of the trip is a tour on the last night of the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, a tear jerking start of a transition into new schools for the students and the end to a bonding week long experience. The trip is culminated the next day by laying a wreath at The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery by the four students who were most involved on the trip.

    You can read about it in school, but to actually visit where history was made, with a teacher whose has endless love for our country and it’s mission, makes the “LA to DC” trip a once in a lifetime opportunity.

    Outside of the trip Mrs. B is famous for was creating the “Percent Project.” Each student would be assigned a profession and a salary, and they would have to budget their income and figure out how they would pay for life’s necessities. She has said that for many of her students, it is the first time they truly understand how fortunate they are and they start to really understand the value of things, like their own education.

    As I was just about to get on the plane to travel to LA, we received an email from Patti Demoff, a story about her son Kevin. She said, “In our family, we hold Marna responsible for Kevin’s life as a miser. It all began with the “percent project.” I knew that he was becoming obsessed with fiscal concerns when after budgeting for a house, utilities, car and college, we were at the grocery store, looking at food costs to develop his “family’s” food budget for the month. When I suggested bacon for breakfast, he looked horrified and exclaimed “we can’t afford bacon!” and that was the beginning of a lifetime of frugality and meticulously balanced budgets. This cost conscious mentality extends to his job, as well. Part of his job is managing the “salary cap” for his team the Buccaneers, which although over “the cap” when he arrived three years ago, is now 27 million dollars under.

    I thought it was a perfect explanation of how Mrs. B’s influence stays with each one of us forever.

    As long-time colleague Peter Smailes puts it, “Few embody the history and personality of the school in quite the way Mrs. Biederman does. Few bring quite the same sense of witt and humor to our campus that Mrs. Biederman brings. Few share the depth and breadth of knowledge and understanding of history, story, and of human nature that Mrs. Biederman shares. Few have mastered the Socratic method the way Mrs. Biederman has. Her use of story and intellectual dialogue with her students is both a gift and an art form.”

    So why me up here? At 11, I lost my mother, and had to move back to LA, as part of my acceptance back into Curtis, they recommended that I have a tutor, so I had the privilege to work with Mrs. B. After some time and expressing an interest in the trip, she invited me to join as a 7th grader. This was great, as I got to help out and be a student, which really meant I got to drag bags around and get soda’s for the chaperones and I got to fill out my trip book on every stop. 19 years later, and one promise to Mrs. B and I’m still dragging bags around and getting soda’s for chaperone’s, but now I have a medical book in tow, a blackberry, and a business partner to report to. We’ve shared many great and not so great times together. I wouldn’t trade a minute of that time for anything else. So I stand before you to show my admiration and respect to a mentor a friend and to credit her for at least helping 1 person navigate thru some pretty rough times.

    It wasn’t just me, she has touched so many students’ lives over the last 30 years, for many; she gave us the strength, knowledge and courage to graduate and move on to the next phase of our lives and our educations.

    As we transitioned to the next school or phase, she would give us her home phone number telling us “If you ever need me anytime, anywhere, call me. I don’t care if it is 2 in the morning, and its 10 years from now you can always call me and I will be there for you.”

    There are not many that are willing to open themselves up and care as much as Marna Biederman. You are one of a kind. And a gift to us all! Congratulations on 30 amazing years.

    David Pappin

    Introduced by Tracy Myer Minker

    David Pappin is synonymous with Curtis athletics. In fact few of us in this room tonight first knew him other than as “Coach Pappin.” David headed the P.E. Department for 26 of the past 30 years and his progressive philosophy about athletics is at the foundation of our robust and successful P.E. and competitive sports programs today.

    Coach Pappin’s route to Curtis was a matter of kismet. But once he found Curtis and Curtis found him, the match proved to be fruitful and ideal for both.

    His career as an educator grew out of his love of sports. He was a college basketball player at Western Oregon University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in social studies. His experience as an athlete led him naturally after graduation to jobs coaching in Portland area high schools. Within one year of graduation, he was earning a master’s degree in Counseling Education and David began to shape himself as a coach and educator.

    Coach Pappin has always been a thinking man’s coach, and though he may not call himself one, a reformer. Although he loved coaching, he was frustrated by the pervasive emphasis in competitive athletics on winning. As a college player himself, he had seen the demoralizing emotional fallout that losses could have on players, in a culture where winning was everything. Not satisfied by the status quo, he wanted to change that model and set about doing so.

    Coach Pappin’s focus on the psychology and mental health of the athlete was ahead of its time. To give you an example, he organized the first coaching conference in Oregon on the emotional and mental aspects of sports.

    When he found his way to Curtis and then-headmaster Bill Badham, he was hired as a full-time substitute teacher. His very first day at Curtis could have been his last. It took him three buses to reach the campus, which at that time was housed in the buildings of St. Victor’s church on Holloway in West Hollywood..

    Coach Pappin, a seasoned secondary school teacher, found out how much he had to learn about elementary school on this first day. Used to working with 17 and 18 year olds, he entered the Kindergarten classroom in his words “scared to death” of the small children. His first mistake was introducing himself by writing “My name is David,” on the chalkboard, then remembering that the five-year olds couldn’t read. Catching himself, he erased the board and by the time he turned around again, found that Wayne Mullen had taken the glue and was freely applying it to Rebecca’s long curly locks. That’s when he learned a second lesson: little children do not respond well to general pleas; they respond to their names. And he didn’t know their names yet. By recess, he recalls, he was almost in tears.

    He got through that day and many days that followed with the help of the faculty and staff. Coach Pappin will tell you that there was something special about Curtis that kept him coming back: the people who worked there... And he learned volumes by observing them that first year. His commute improved significantly, too, when Marna Biederman, who already transported several students to Curtis each morning, added him to her route of pick-ups; albeit space was at a premium and some riders had to sit on the laps of others to fit inside her car.

    The following year, in 1980, when the school moved to a spacious unused campus in the Culver City … Baddy, impressed by Coach Pappin’s philosophy of character development through sports education, asked him to take over as athletics director and build a program around his concept.

    Coach Pappin hadn’t planning on staying in elementary education. His ambition was to produce workshops in athletics and character development. But he soon realized that he had been given a gift. Here was his opportunity to do something everyday with children and to impact how they felt about sports and competition. He hoped to build a competitive sports program that would help children feel good about themselves and instill values that would make them not only good sportspeople but good people.

    One of the first tasks he set himself was to professionalize the physical education department and make the practice and perception of physical education equal to that of academic subjects. In his view, P.E. teachers were skilled educators who should use opportunities in competition and on the play yard to teach not only athletic skills but human values. He began to build a P.E. faculty of enviable talent and the highest caliber, many of whom we are fortunate to have teaching our children today.

    Coach Pappin’s approach to sports continues to form the basis of our P.E. and athletics curricula today. In the lower grades, the emphasis is on growing children’s confidence and self-esteem by matching challenges to their abilities and helping them feel good themselves for trying even when they don’t succeed..

    Coach Pappin has always advocated that “every child plays” on teams. No children are cut and multiple teams are fielded in each grade based on ability to ensure that all children have the opportunity to compete at a level where they will be successful. Jeff credits David with creating this model that is now the standard in our league. Coach Pappin also began something we have now come to take for granted: competitive team sports for Curtis girls. On winning and losing, Jeff Albert has said of David, “He taught me to find something positive in every situation; and that in every loss there is something to be learned.”

    Values education has been at the center of Coach Pappin’s life’s work. One of the things of which is most proud is his role in helping to write the San Fernando Valley Private School League Code of Conduct. All coaches and athletic directors in the league pledge each year to adhere to the standards of sportsmanship that it codifies.

    Coach Pappin’s desire to contribute to the overall educational experience led to more Curtis “firsts.” He started the first student council at Curtis. Seeing an opportunity to further utilize the teachers’ many special skills and Curtis’ remarkable campus, he began an after-school extension program for students in all grades. He introduced the first drug education awareness program at Curtis for the Upper School and the first health and human development program for the sixth grade. And, one of the highlights of the year, “Superstars Day,” a day of play and friendly competition that is all about children, is also his brainchild.

    In 2006, one of the school’s highest athletic awards was created to honor David Pappin for his many years of service to Curtis School as Athletics Director and to recognize the positive impact he has had on generation after generation of students. On Dads’ Day that year, when the David Pappin Competitive Spirit Award was given for the first time, Jeff Albert asked of those assembled, “Where do we begin to talk about a man who has given everything to Curtis? He has mentored many people who have taught here and taken the philosophy and teaching skills they have learned from him beyond Curtis. He has influenced thousands of children’s lives and they still come back to visit Coach Pappin.”

    Thank you, Coach Pappin, for your unstinting dedication to the education of children and to Curtis School.

    Kathie Reed

    Introduced by Ginger Healy

    “Parlez vous francais?” Children from more than 18 different elementary schools in Charlotte, North Carolina received the benefit of being taught French by this Curtis teacher whose broad experience includes a Masters degree in French. At the time, Kathie may not have anticipated the incredible impact she would have on Curtis School, having faithfully and lovingly devoted herself to Curtis for three decades. A background in French is one of many attributes Kathie brings to the classroom, enriching the lives of each of her students for the past 30 years.

    Kathie Reed grew up in New Jersey. She was educated at the University of Alabama where she received her Masters degree in French. Soon after, Kathie moved to Los Angeles, where she began her teaching career at a small school in Santa Monica called the Alouette School. She began at Curtis as a first grade teacher. At the time, Curtis was located at the cramped Saint Victor campus where space was a premium. It was here that Kathie first learned about the welcoming and friendly spirit of the Curtis community, which she liked a lot. The move to Culver City was a great change for the school and for Kathie, as was the move to the Mulholland location. Kathie has said of the Mulholland campus that “it is just beautiful and that lends itself to the school’s success.”

    One of Kathie’s favorite parts of her Curtis experience is flag salute. She says that she “especially loves everyday flag pole and knowing as many of the faculty as I can.” Having spent 24 years as a third grade teacher, she describes third grade as her home. One of the reasons she cherishes this grade level so much is because she sees the transition between third and fourth grade as such a significant time in a child’s life.

    Her devotion to students inside the classroom and beyond has helped shape the outstanding school that Curtis is today in so many ways. During her career at Curtis, Kathie has made an impression on the lives of future student leaders as a faculty advisor to the lower school student council. Her valued devotion is noticed by all—Kathie is continually asked to serve on committees at Curtis, and being the dedicated person she is, she always says yes! Along with former colleague Kate Beckman, Kathie pioneered the third grade whale watch field trip, a beloved tradition that created lasting memories for many of the alumni and parents in attendance tonight. These are just a few of the many academic affairs and other committees she has been a part of during her 30 years at our school.

    As a Curtis parent and former colleague, Keith Cody had glowing words for Kathie. “Two of my own sons, John and Tom were in Kathie’s class and they loved her gentle, caring manner. As teachers, we are always encouraged to collaborate with our grade level colleagues. Kathie was so great to work with! The third grade level team: Kathie, Kate Beckman, and I got a lot done because they always put the kids’ interests first. I truly respect Kathie as an educator and as a friend.”

    Perhaps more than anything, Kathie’s kind soul, peaceful spirit, and love of children continue to make a difference in the hearts of her students and colleagues day in and day out. As told by longtime colleague Sandy Kiratsoulis, “Kathie Reed is a treasure! Her gentle manner, coupled with experience and professionalism, are second to none. I partnered with Kathie as we led Lower School Student Council. Kathie made our job effortless. We had a great time and I loved working with her! Whenever in Kathie’s company, I have felt that aura of peace. She is and always has been a delight! She is a true model in our Curtis family.”

    Thank you Ms. Reed for all of your hard work, love and compassion for those you have taught over the past 30 years. We are all truly grateful for everything you have contributed to Curtis School and would like to honor you tonight by saying thank you with this plaque!

    Dottie Serrao

    Introduced by Ari Bass

    Our next honoree, Dorothy Serrao, was born and raised in New Jersey. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in Social Studies and Geography from Montclair State Teachers College, and her Master’s degree in U.S. History from NYU. A famous quote of hers heard around campus is “History should be a living subject; we should always connect the past to the present.” Her passion for History, Geography, Culture and Archeology has taken her across the globe. She has visited and studied in England, Scotland, Wales, Argentina, Italy, Turkey, Nicaragua, Peru, and most recently, China. These travels have helped her bring to the classroom an added element of first-hand knowledge, which she passes down to Curtis students with a passion.

    “It makes quite an impact when Mrs. Serrao draws from her own life experiences,” said one former student. Mrs. Serrao’s extended trip to China, following archeological and historical workshops at UCLA, inspired her to introduce a unit on China to the 6th grade Ancient Cultures curriculum for Social Studies. Colleagues say that Mrs. Serrao’s style of teaching asks students to generate historical connections themselves, which encourages and requires students' curiosity and critical thought.

    As an activist, she is a big supporter of Heifer International, and donates a farm animal every year to help end hunger in Third World countries. Mrs. Serrao participates annually in the Revlon Run/Walk for Women to raise funds and awareness for breast cancer. Last year she completed the Los Angeles Marathon. Congratulations!

    Mrs. Serrao has witnessed the evolution of Curtis School and has seen it come a long, long way. When she first started teaching 30 years ago, there were no history maps available to her, so she would hand draw them on the walls. Numerous students have said, “Mrs. Serrao hands down draws the best Mesopotamia maps on the chalkboard.” Another former student, Ari Bass, said of Mrs. Serrao said that her “class was one to which I sincerely looked forward. Through her lectures, artistic skill and assigned projects, cultures long since gone came to life. She engaged the class and showed us how some of our current customs, practices and inventions are actually "borrowed" from civilizations thousands of years old. Who else could draw freehand the Nile Delta and Fertile Crescent, while at the same time inserting some relevant hieroglyphics. Thank you for teaching me how to appreciate ancient cultures and civilizations.”

    When asked about Mrs. Serrao, long time colleague and fellow honoree David Pappin had particular praise for her ability to reach those students who weren’t always inspired to learn. He said that “during her long tenure in the Upper School Mrs. Serrao had to adapt to many styles of learners—a challenge for even the best, most experienced teachers. She has just never been one to easily have any student slip by, no matter the level of learning difficulty. She used all resources afforded her, but maybe her best was the simplest: the use of the newspaper and current events to inspire the student to invest the energy to learn. At every graduation, after only two short years, these Curtis graduates left the Upper School with a new sense of the entire world and the confidence that if some high school teacher were to ask for a spot on our world map or to connect our current political culture to that of early Greek or Roman times, the Curtis grad could probably handle it quite well.”

    Finally, when Mrs. Serrao originally joined Curtis School she was under the impression that it was to be only for one year. It is the camaraderie and closeness of the Curtis faculty that keeps her coming back year after year. Curtis is her second family. It is with much respect and adoration that we present this plaque for thirty years of dedication. We thank you, Dorothy Serrao!


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