Sex, Drugs, and Textbooks: Inside L.A.’s Most Controversial Educational Experiment
Uni High tapped into the pop-psych teachings of the ’70s to create one of the most bizarre curriculums of the era
University High is a rarity in Los Angeles: a public high school founded before World War II. It opened in 1924, when much of the Westside was still being developed and the 10 freeway was decades away. For the school and the area it serves, change has been constant. But the most radical era of all at the school began in 1970, when a young teacher named Caldwell Williams helped spearhead the Innovative Program School, or IPS. Intended as a haven for students with unconventional learning styles, it was a school within a school that sought to reinvent secondary education.
Williams, an African American educator who had run a successful after-school drug counseling program, was something of an anomaly at the mostly white Uni. Following a meeting with progressive-minded parents, he teamed up with English teacher Fred Holtby to create a curriculum that would channel the pop-psych teachings of the time. They wanted students to guide their own learning, focus on their feelings, and engage in raw dialogue about sex, drugs, and all the other topics that animated their lives. The teachings incorporated principles of the popular self-help movement known as est, then shifted to those of Scientology.
What began with 150 or so students would eventually double in size before the program ended in 1978. Several IPS students worked at The Red Tide, an underground newspaper that, among its other agitations, hosted a speech by the actress Jane Fonda, known to conservatives as “Hanoi Jane” for her support of the Viet Cong. The American Nazi Party was also invited to give a presentation, after which Holtby compared the students’ narrow-mindedness to that of the presentation they’d just witnessed. Paul Beahm, who would change his name to Darby Crash and found the pioneering punk band the Germs before dying of a heroin overdose in 1980, met his bandmate—and future Foo Fighters guitarist—Pat Smear when they were IPS students. “People thought it was a really weird school,” Beahm was quoted as saying in the book Lexicon Devil. “Like one of the teachers was a convicted child molester. Carole King’s daughter went there with us, too. And Jeff Bridges used to visit us all the time.”
Between the reports of teachers having inappropriate relations with students, its controversial curriculum, and the program’s general disregard for being part of the Los Angeles Unified School District, IPS wasn’t destined to survive the era in which it arose. But for those who attended, the experience was nothing short of indelible. In the oral history that follows, some former students credit IPS with saving them; others, with something much darker.
I. The Beginning
CALDWELL WILLIAMS (COFOUNDER): I was a teacher at Uni High and had worked with Senator Alan Cranston on a plan to open an alternative school in South-Central. The plan didn’t go through, but it got me thinking in other terms, closer to home. In the spring of 1970, there was a teachers’ strike. During the strike, a woman named Naomi Childs hosted a meeting and wanted to know which faculty they should invite to discuss doing something innovative at University High. I walked in and saw an articulate, highly educated group of parents with high intentions. Kato Pomer was at the meeting. She’d been a proponent of an innovative school in Philadelphia. I saw the potential for a school within a school.
KAREN POMER (FILMMAKER): My mother was involved in the founding of IPS. I had visited the Philadelphia Parkway Program, which had a no-wall policy and was extremely racially integrated. Time magazine called it the most interesting school in the U.S. I think their policy was that 50 percent of the student body had to be African American.
WILLIAMS: Upon hearing what people were talking about, Fred Holtby practically jumped out of his seat and dragged me into the kitchen. He proposed that he and I be the nucleus of the team, and I agreed. I went back into the room where the parents were meeting and told them that we had a plan. The parents cheered.
We were ready to march on the principal of Uni High, Warren Juhnke, and make demands. I called Warren and told him we’d have a proposal tomorrow. There had been a number of headlines about affluent Westside kids involved in drugs. People were freaking out about it, and I had a program [DAWN, Developing Adolescents Without Narcotics, an after-school counseling program cofounded by Williams] that dealt with it. There were people in that room who wrote checks to the Board of Education. So when my people called over there, the board told the superintendent to let me do my thing at Uni.
ELIZABETH WARNER (TV TALENT BOOKER): I was in IPS for one school year, my freshman year at Uni—1971-’72. There was a random lottery that took place a few months before the school year. My name was picked. I really had no idea what I was getting into except that IPS was a “free” school where you didn’t have to do any homework or go to class. My mom really had no idea what IPS was, either.
WILLIAMS: We had a mix of bored, brilliant kids and stone-cold stoners.
MICHAEL APSTEIN (ENTREPRENEUR): I had done my freshman and sophomore years at Beverly Hills High School, and I was skipping school, failing classes. I was a hot mess. My mother, who was a psychologist, knew another psychologist—an IPS school parent—who suggested it. I’d grown up in Beverly Hills, and when I heard that IPS was in a public school located by Barrington and Santa Monica, I thought it was the barrio. That’s how sheltered I was.
PAUL ROESSLER (MUSICIAN AND MUSIC PRODUCER): The image of the IPS students to the rest of the school was that we were weirdos and drug addicts, and they were intimidated by us. A lot of their judgments sprang not from the whole but from the few loudest outliers.
STEPHAN MICHAELS (MUSIC SUPERVISOR AND WRITER): I think the music scene in L.A. greatly contributed to the city’s free-spirited vibe and social mores. Weed, acid, cocaine, and Quaaludes were prevalent everywhere you turned, public beaches were allowing nudity, and even our parents were wearing bell-bottoms and torn Levi’s and mimicking hip lingo. IPS mirrored that mind-expanding cultural hipness and could probably have only thrived for as long as it did in the liberal clime of West L.A. circa the 1970s.
II. School Daze
IPS emphasized emotional intelligence—at times seemingly more than it did academic rigor. Students participated in instruction periods known as “frames,” so named to convey the frames of reference that replaced the traditional classroom structure. They also participated in morning tai chi classes, sat on beanbag chairs, and were responsible for grading themselves.
CALDWELL WILLIAMS: In our second year we looked at classes as frames of reference. We viewed the world through the frame, but they still correlated to the basic subjects. The premise to the student was “Find yourself. Find your frame.” Once a week was Frame Day, a day that—in addition to how you handled your subject matter—everyone was focused on a single frame. The guest presenter, or all of us together interacting, or the students in our frame, sat around us while we pestered the presenter with questions or comments, or we could have a field trip.
PAUL ROESSLER: There was a frame taught by each teacher, and it would last several hours. You would focus on one subject at a time for several months.
ROBERT A.B. SAWYER (POET AND FORMER ADVERTISING EXECUTIVE): IPS placed a special emphasis on critical thinking. In particular it encouraged a range of reaction to the “system”—from a healthy skepticism to repudiation. IPS expected a lot from its students, in particular that they be willing to reject received wisdom and hierarchical structures. We were taught as a whole; the lack of physical structures, i.e., desks, encouraged a genuine mingling. What’s more, the Socratic manner of instruction practiced by Caldwell and Fred made clear there were no geniuses and no dunces among us.
ROESSLER: There was a feeling that we were all participating in something important, even revolutionary. For a young person, this was a sort of continuation of the social exploration embodied by the Beatles and other musical groups of that time, the anything-is-possible side of the ’60s filtering out into the educational system. They would remind us that the teacher was working for us. You had to come to the teacher and discuss your interests, and their job was to show you how their discipline worked with those interests. Say I’m a surfer and the teacher is going to teach me about wave motion. Or I’m interested in music and the teacher would put me on a path to learn about American folk music.
ELIZABETH WARNER: We were responsible for our own education, getting to class and learning. There were lectures by the teacher, but you could walk in and out whenever you wanted to. We called our teachers by their first names. No one took attendance. There were no rules, no homework. We did not have to read any books. I don’t think I read a book the whole year, except for books that I was interested in. We gave ourselves our own grades, which was on the “honor” system. I think I gave myself As and Bs at random.
LAURIE MARKS WAGNER (WRITER AND WRITING INSTRUCTOR): I remember Bill, one of our teachers, saying, “So, Laurie, what do you think you deserve in history this term?” “An A?” I answered. “How about a B?” he said. “I’ve given out too many As today.”
WILLIAMS: We agreed that mastery was a criterion, so that warranted an A. Fill out your report card, have your teacher sign it, and return it. Doing their own grades based on their mastery—that set off a hellfire of reaction in the system.
WAGNER: Every morning we started out on some empty basketball court doing tai chi for an hour. The regular schoolkids were in their first periods, sometimes even watching us from the windows of their classrooms. And there we were—150 of us all lined up doing tai chi.
MICHAEL BRIGHT (RETIRED NAVY CHIEF PETTY OFFICER): It was called “Body-Mind.” We met in the morning, and when we formed up in a big group, we got real quiet and began moving to connect our intention on focusing our minds and bodies. Frame was at the end of the day, when everyone would get together in one classroom and we’d begin to open up and share. We could say anything on our minds. After one person shared a thought or feeling, that person would be acknowledged by a rousing round of hand clapping. It was incredible to feel so valued by friends and the staff.
STEPHAN MICHAELS: There was lots of hugging and emotional reinforcement. Caldwell once demonstrated the difference between the guarded, protective hug that he dubbed the “A-Frame,” where two people met at the shoulders with lots of back patting. He contrasted that with the real hug he called “The Surrender.” We were directed to go around the room, warmly embracing each other until we’d hugged everyone.
BRIGHT: We were allowed to express our feelings in every class, every group gathering, and express ourselves we did! Clothing, ideas, dreams, ambitions, love, sex, desires, drugs, etcetera. After all, it was the ’70s.
WAGNER: At the end of the week on Fridays, we’d have a final Friday share, and then we were to go up to three people who we had “withholds” with—something we wanted to tell them that we hadn’t. Sometimes that meant you liked someone and you wanted them to know. Maybe a boy. Or maybe something had happened that had hurt you and this was a chance to tell that person. I remember it always being very intense and loaded. People might come up and tell you that they judged you for something—the way you dressed, your body. And when someone told you something, you just took it in and said thank you. So people took a lot of risks in communication—they were very up-front.
JOEL DRUCKER (AUTHOR AND JOURNALIST): Caldwell liked to let people know how he perceived them. Sometimes he would bluntly say things, such as telling some rich boy, “You’re more than your body and your BMW,” or to an attractive girl, “You’re more than your ability to give men erections.”
SAWYER: The philosophy of IPS also acknowledged that teenagers were sexual beings, and sexuality was not avoided nor sexual relationships discouraged. “Rights”—women’s liberation, civil rights, human rights, and antiwar sentiments—were all part of the ongoing dialogue. Of course all this must be understood in the context of the times, the mid-’70s, and place, West L.A., when a large proportion of students’ parents were divorcing, experimenting, swinging, men marrying girls half their age, gay parents coming out, both voluntarily and involuntarily. There was no war on drugs, no “Just say no” campaign.
MICHAEL APSTEIN: By today’s PC standards, there was all kinds of outrageous behavior. There are a whole host of things that I could critique, but you have to start by putting this in context of the mid-to late ’70s because it was just a different time.
WILLIAMS: My students wanted to see Deep Throat. I told them to ask their parents, and if they supported seeing it, I’d allow it. There was a lively discussion between parents about appropriate material. My contention was, these kids are 16, 17 years old. They’re curious about everything. The end result was, they agreed to show the movie at a parent’s home. We also agreed to have an evening where we discussed homosexual sex and sexual deviance and open up the conversation.
Early on, IPS adopted Erhard Seminars Training, or est. Founded in San Francisco by Werner Erhard, it emphasized personal responsibility and involved intensive seminars. IPS would go on to explore principles of Scientology as well.
STEPHAN MICHAELS: Caldwell Williams had done the Erhard Seminars Training, and I vaguely recall his telling me he had spent about 20 hours with Werner Erhard. IPS philosophy was suddenly infused with est concepts and jargon. Slogans like “What you resist persists,” “Take responsibility for your experience,” and “See yourself as the cause of your experience” now permeated the daily school experience. IPS was becoming an alternative program school modeled within the framework of est.
JOEL DRUCKER: To “innovate” meant a consistent emphasis on change, on trying new ideas. The early years of IPS—what the staff often referred to as “a free school”—were massively deregulated. For every student who indeed took to independent study and could engage in self-regulated coursework, many, many more were hardly doing much more than going to the beach and doing drugs. Soon enough, in ’73-’74, there became much more emphasis on self-awareness, and so, yes, ideas from est were wholesaled into IPS.
CALDWELL WILLIAMS: By the end of the second year, we instituted Basic Training for the kids. We got lecture hall space that would accommodate the entire student body. In the summer, before classes started, the first five days—all day, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.—was Basic Training, where we introduced students to our psychology and methodology. At the end of the week, we were filling the ground at Royce Hall with our students and parents and faculty for a four-hour testimonial—kids talking about insights, transgressions committed secretly they hadn’t told their parents about, making commitments for the upcoming year. There were tears all over the place. This happened simultaneously with the administration dumping students on us. We had nearly doubled, to 250 students. And Basic Training handled it.
MICHAELS: I distinctly remember standing up and complaining. I offered that the est exercises seemed like mind control and worried that we were being brainwashed. Fred swiftly discounted my concern and volleyed that I was free to go back to the regular school anytime I wanted. Caldwell added that we were not to believe what the staff was telling us and to “check it out” for ourselves. We weren’t even allowed to go to the restroom until the official break. And that could be for hours. The rationale was something like, “Don’t be at the effect of your bladder.” That no-going-to-the-bathroom bullshit was straight out of est.
PHILIP VAN ALLEN (PROFESSOR AND ARTIST): On an emotional level, I learned to be more self-reflective and honest with myself. Even if the est stuff was kind of fucked up, the basics of therapy and group encounter was a good thing.
WILLIAMS: Basic Training signified that we weren’t a dumping ground, even though by the third year we became a repository for every mental case, criminal case, and academically doomed student at Uni.
SHARON WEIL (AUTHOR): By the third year, things had changed so much that the tenth graders weren’t getting the basics. When I was there, it was elevated, and most of the kids there were working at a very high level. But if you weren’t self-motivated, you could drift off and not be heard from.
PAUL ROESSLER: Perhaps the single most influential experience that happened to me there was meeting a kid named Paul Beahm, who went on to become the lead singer of a punk band called the Germs, using the pseudonym Darby Crash. Ferociously intelligent, mysterious, and charismatic, his personality stood out in a school full of personalities.
VAN ALLEN: My vague memory of Paul Beahm’s personal life was living on the Westside, but in an apartment with his mom and without much in the way of resources. And so he exemplified in a much stronger way than most of us a kind of suburban malaise.
ROESSLER: Paul would use hallucinogens, Bowie, and his own brand of rhetoric to “deprogram” IPS kids. He would take us on “field trips” to the Scientology Center to take personality tests (he scored perfect and was asked to come teach); to the Hare Krishna temple to chant and eat their fruit and nuts and yogurt; to the West L.A. underground reservoir, where we swam in pitch-black darkness in the middle of the night.
MICHAEL BRIGHT: IPS turned into a Scientology experiment after 1977, and I did not like it. But I was tolerant of it. I wanted to complete my time in IPS and felt like I just could not reenroll in regular school.
MICHAEL APSTEIN: The training routines in Fred’s class were, I’m pretty sure, taken directly from Scientology. I actually think Zero through Four were incredibly valuable (I did Five through Eight, and that got weirder). Four was known as Bull Baiting. One person would try to stay present with your words and not be sucked in by whatever outrageous behavior was going on outside the words. No reaction, just be present. One time, I sat there with a jock, a big guy who I think had come over from regular Uni, and started doing this routine which was designed to make him laugh. I kept trying different things until finally I stood up in front of him, grabbed my crotch and yelled “Suck my dick!” and kicked his chair. And he just lost it—cracked up, probably more out of embarrassment than anything. It attracted the whole room’s attention, so Fred came over and watched, and just sat there, laughing.
WILLIAMS: I learned that on two or three occasions, I was the subject of discussion of executive sessions of the board, who said that this man was doing illegal things out there, violating laws, perhaps committing felonies. The intent was first to destroy my reputation, then destroy me. The local administration unilaterally changed the procedure from a lottery to assigning students to us. One year, in the middle of the school year, we had 60 seniors dumped on us who weren’t going to graduate. The administration told me it was an administrative decision and asked if I was going to be insubordinate.
A former student of mine had a friend, Amanda Ambrose, who taught illiterate USC football players how to read. That intrigued me. Her office was on the USC campus. Fred and I went to meet her. Amanda was a Scientologist. She told me they had a Hubbard technology that taught people how to read. If your English teacher says that this could be helpful to kids that are struggling, in my universe that’s useful. So we introduced Study Tech. Remember, this is all in the context of us being a dumping ground. When parents raised questions, I invited them to a meeting, and I invited Amanda Ambrose so they could all interact. It was one of the few times in my eight years where some people in the community were so adamant that this was bad that they were unwilling to hear. I didn’t know what to do with that, except to say there was something amiss if so many people had such strong feelings.
DRUCKER: For all the people who whine about Scientology marking the trigger point for IPS’s demise, I can guarantee you there were many enrolled in that last year of ’77-’78 who got tremendous value from those ideas.
As the district grew more weary of IPS, it removed Caldwell Williams but allowed a version of the program to continue through the 1977-’78 school year. Then it pulled the plug. (Est would come to an end several years later.) According to some students, though, IPS achieved at least some of its aims, despite itself.
KAREN HAMPTON (ARTIST): I remember that the administration from Uni’s regular school wanted to end IPS for many years. They felt that we did not do any real work in IPS.
JOEL DRUCKER: There had been rumors in the spring of ’77 that IPS was going to end. But that didn’t quite happen. Still, there was a strong sense through the ’77-’78 school year that the school was being watched by the L.A. school district officials more closely than ever. Perhaps one subtle change was when we went from clapping after sharing to snapping our fingers. IPS was being slowly muzzled, and the staff was a bit less unified and productive. Caldwell was spending a lot of time dealing with the school district people. Fred himself was getting more zealous about Scientology. Bill Greene, the sensible history teacher, retired in the fall of ’77.
STEPHAN MICHAELS: The new principal at Uni High—a former U.S. brigadier general, I think—was very suspicious and critical of what was going on at IPS. There was definitely friction between him and Caldwell, most visibly the school’s prime mover. I also think some parents had complained about the program, but I am not sure about the parent factor. One former IPS student chimed in on the IPS Facebook page that Fred and Caldwell had charged parents for their weekend seminars, and that was the last straw. Apparently teachers aren’t supposed to take money from parents. Initially I was angry at the conservative hard-liners in the school administration and the L.A. school district. But I also shook my head at Fred and Caldwell for pushing the envelope and lamented that the other staff members did not rein them in. I think they were asking for it, effectively leading with their chins.
CALDWELL WILLIAMS: The school district had been run since 1900 by Methodist men from USC. They ran it until the civil rights movement busted their monopoly. I was fighting daily battles with the administration, who charged our school with assorted felonies. Which later became charges against me. They sent a team of evaluators to our campus to take our school down. The team was blown away by how welcoming and friendly the kids were. To this day, we’ve never seen the evaluator’s report.
GLENN T. MORGAN (SOUND EDITOR): The school was pulled away from Caldwell, but Uni wanted to continue it under a more controlled environment.
MICHAEL BRIGHT: We had many restrictions placed upon us. Mostly we had to have desks and chairs in classrooms instead of couches and large pillows to sit on. Massage class was banned. Frame became a very quiet event; in fact, it, too, was banned, but we continued in a cloak-and-dagger manner. Math classes were mandatory, no more tai chi. We were not as fun or liberal as we were previously.
ROBERT A.B. SAWYER: Caldwell probably saved my life. He was my first adult friend. No, we did not have sex. Yes, we could sit together for an hour and not say a word. Once, he gave me a massage and commented that I was perfectly proportioned. Today he would be lynched for “exploiting my vulnerability.” To me it was another IPS experience, like an encounter where we were encouraged to embrace, hug, and kiss each other. Men and women, women and women, men and men. And yes, I know some people are to this day very angry with Caldwell and IPS. Many blame him for this or that unfortunate event or for their own hurt feelings or shame.
HAMPTON: I think that IPS taught all of us to think for ourselves, to trust our own knowledge, and if we need to learn something, to conduct research. I think the most important thing IPS left me with is a sense of responsibility for my own decisions, being clear about my values, and wanting to make the world a better place.
LAURIE MARKS WAGNER: If you left IPS and you had a pretty good sense of how to read and write, you could get through college. Still, I didn’t read the classics, and I lacked some writing skills some of the regular schoolkids probably got, but academics weren’t on our mind.
ELIZABETH WARNER: I am a celebrity-talent producer for television shows. I guess because I was not in school very much in tenth grade, that allowed me to watch as much TV as I wanted. So in a strange way, I guess that year of doing whatever I wanted helped me get the pop culture background.
PHILIP VAN ALLEN: Academically it was very idiosyncratic, and I missed huge chunks of the normal curriculum. But clichéd as it may sound, I learned to think and learn in a very real way.
DRUCKER: IPS had a dramatic impact in fueling my ambitions. The biggest lesson of IPS was that each of us was in control of our own destiny, that we were the “cause” rather than the “effect.” So concepts like “intention” and “desire” put us each at the center of the universe, leading anyone to think they were the spiritual epicenter of IPS. You could feel that way if you were a Bowie wannabe, a Manson family renegade, a Joni Mitchell poetess, or in my case, someone obsessed with John and Bobby Kennedy.
SAWYER: As a character in a play I wrote taunted another, “It was fun while it lasted, but had it lasted it would not have been fun.”
David Kukoff is a screenwriter and the author of the novel Children of the Canyon. He is the editor of the forthcoming Los Angeles in the 1970s: Weird Scenes in the Goldmine (Rare Bird Books), from which this oral history was adapted.