Anne Cochran’s monthly column gives advice for parents and teeneagers who are navigating the college planning process. Find her very informational series here
I met Anne Cochran in a crowded yard across cheese platters and wine as she was pitching her new school to us – a group of partially skeptical, partially eager parents. She is funny, smart, honest, down to earth and she has a stellar reputation as one of Los Angeles’ best college counselors. I immediately liked her, so much so that I put my younger child in her fledgling school.
As time went by, I realized this woman moved from a job as a senior VP within a large Hollywood PR firm to running this off-beat school. I was swept up in her desire to really create viable college choices for students. So, I joined her team and helped get approval for a new charter for VALLEY INTERNATIONAL PREPARATORY HIGH SCHOOL (VIP).
Giving Students More College Choices
VIP is dedicated to being small – never to become a large high school. The small size has a lot to do with their strength and attractiveness. The class sizes are small… averaging around 20 kids per classroom. They do indeed offer AP coursework and an array of lively academic and arts electives. I don’t think they compare with any other school in Los Angeles. There might be few small private ones in L.A., but none in the Valley of which I’m aware. Also, any young person who wants college choices will have plenty of them at VIP. The overwhelming majority of the students end up with anywhere from around five to 15 college acceptances plus ample financial aid offered by the majority of them. The Hollywood Reporter just named VIP one of the top 15 public high schools.
The team at VIP has created a school atmosphere that’s as happy and productive as they come. They actually enjoy working together. Since they’re on the same page, they operate as a functional work family.
Anne Changes Lives Every Day
It’s been a pleasure getting to know her and an honor to call her a friend.
Let’s meet Anne Cochran:
What inspired you to start college counseling?
I’d learned quite a bit on my own over the years, but I took a huge leap forward when my own two kids attended Harvard-Westlake School, graduating in ‘04 and ‘06. The school’s college counseling practices were a revelation to me, and I couldn’t get enough of this newly discovered “game board,” as I still refer to it to this day. I wasn’t a typical helicopter parent inasmuch as my own ego being overly wrapped up in the college outcomes of my kids, but they were definitely catalysts in self-discovery of my own interest and raw talent. I swear…poor Sharon Cuseo, who was my kids’ very patient and kind “Dean” (an HW term for college counselor). She taught me a whole lot between my stalking her in the school parking lot and going out to dinners I twisted her arm to have with me. I couldn’t get enough of her knowledge, her war stories…here I was in my 50s, and for the first time in my life was finally experiencing that certain sort of calling I’d sought to no avail throughout my life.
I decided I’d initiate a career change by opening a private college-counseling practice, a field that was in its infancy back then as compared to now. It seems to me like just about every fourth-or-so empty-nester I nowadays meet is in some stage of planning or opening such a practice.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing students who want to go to college?
They have many challenges, ones they and their parents don’t always recognize. I could talk for the entirety of the next year on this topic. The one that generally confounds me the most is the reality that nearly all teens and their folks believe there is a finite group of schools that they can and/or should target.
Whenever I individually meet with any given 16 year old for the first time, I am faced with the realization that the young person in front of me believes the college game board specifically consists of UCLA, CSUN, USC, UC Berkeley, Yale, NYU, a few others that fall in and out of top favor and of course –community colleges, the choices being dependent on the casual college-related conversations that happen around their dinner tables at home.
The happy truth is that there are literally thousands of great college options for kids to consider…
…and any given student has countless great choices, but the sad truth is that we as a culture fixate on about a 10 – 20 of them. All others be damned or deemed non-existent. This issue makes me feel crazy-frustrated. They make ill-conceived choices. I think it’s what is wrong with our public schools’ overall handling of college choice.
Left to their own devices, kids and parents pick schools that are far too selective for the stats they’ve produced, or what’s worse is when they’re tremendously undermatched, which tends to happen in very large public schools with prevalent underserved/first-generation populations…valedictorians, for example, who enroll in and drop out of community colleges. Parents tell their kids they can’t go anywhere but public universities and community colleges because they have no understanding of the financial aid piece that sits front and center within private higher ed.
Kids from all walks of life can attend excellent private institutions with ample financial aid in place to make it possible, but they don’t know the moves, so they default to the same overcrowded and/or unattainable choices out of ignorance.
Do you have any advice for students?
Learn to view and experience high school as a fun and exciting game from Day #1. Every moment counts. It’s ok and even preferable to take a breath and not start the whole college chase as a freshman or even as a sophomore. But know that the better you do from the start in terms of delivering strong grades, of bettering your reading/writing/math skills, of learning to get along with all sorts of friends and value your teachers, of recognizing and appreciating even the tiniest moments of happiness, and most of all, of not giving into becoming a participant/believer within this frightening, skyrocketing teen-centered anxiety/depression trend (after all, I’m here to tell you that life just shouldn’t be that serious!) — all of these things will not only bring you college-going success if you want it, but also to an overall state of high-level happiness within your daily life.
Why did you decide to start your own school?
I started the college counseling program at Champs in its inception, and in that initial six-year span, I became great buddies with a fellow staffer there by the name of Brad Koepenick. Brad, a communications teacher at that time, was someone who’d had a pretty sizable Hollywood production career and was drawn to working in public education for similar reasons to mine. He had lots in common with my husband, Chuck, and me, lives near us, and we became a team of sorts.
“Such a quality experience and kids are so worth the trouble”
Our school’s management was forever changing. Brad had a huge personality, and was tired of being misunderstood and kept in a proverbial box. He was someone who preferred coloring outside of the lines. I was realizing I was now placed on a yearly cycle of doing the same thing over and over again (college choice and applications comprise a deadline-driven cyclical process) and I couldn’t visualize any sort of meaningful career growth happening for me in that scenario. I’ve never been someone who loves answering to a boss and the idea of always having to explain my ideas and actions to a new principal-of-the-moment threatened to become an untenable reality. I felt like I had too much to give and noteworthy career experience to be warehoused in some dank office within a now much larger, more impersonal school, and probably told I could “only see kids during lunch periods or after school on days when the moon is full.” I joke, of course, but it’s a truth within the realm of attempting to creatively think and act within any school environment.
So… one day we received a call from an admittedly crazy former Champs executive director who proposed that we join forces and open a new charter high school with a college-going mission that would be financed/housed within his new charter management organization (CMO). Brad and I didn’t realize at the time just how little we knew about starting a high school. We were naive as the day is long. Nevertheless, we were definitely up for an adventure, and we jumped at the chance as for better or worse, we are both types who are willing to roll the dice. It’s probably good that we were ignorant of the myriad potential pitfalls. If we’d known, I doubt we’d have ever made the leap.
The aforementioned crazy executive director quickly showed himself to be highly untrustworthy within the initial days of opening to the point of being a danger to our survival. We were fortunate enough that a talented and experienced parent-club-leader type graced our doors and enrolled her freshman son… that’s you, Alison! As you know, you and I worked with some other key players to run him out of his own CMO, and it took exactly nine weeks to do it. We opened our doors on August 18, 2014, and he was taken out by his CMO’s Board of Directors on October 25, 2014. Good thing we moved in this direction — he’s long since become a federal-level criminal and enemy of the charter school movement. We dodged a fatal bullet.
Meanwhile, at Brad’s urging, Chuck joined our happy group of educators in a part-time capacity as a teacher of a School of Rock-type of music program. It’s called “Music Lab.” He moved in and installed a lot of his live performance and music studio equipment, built a stage, and to this day teaches a fun and unique contemporary music course.
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Brad forged a friendship toward the end of our Champs period with a young fresh-out-of-UCLA speech/mock trial star named Iain Lampert who turned out to be a gift from God. Iain has arguably become one of the most talented speech coaches in the nation, and has been a key player in helping us build a successful college-prep culture.
“There’s our future principal!”
Brad and I hired a new, very smart educator who’d landed at Champs when he moved to LA after being a Teach For America alum in New York City. When we sat with him for the first time, we looked at each other as soon as he left and exclaimed “There’s our future principal!” It’s exactly what happened. During Year One when we opened with me seated as the founding principal, he chaired our social studies department and was promoted to assistant principal during Year Two…and became our principal when we opened on the Chatsworth campus in the Fall of 2018 as VIP. He’s gifted and dedicated, and I can’t imagine daily life on campus without him. His name is Michael Horne.
Some excellent young teachers came and went along the way. Kathryn Wilbert, our math teacher-turned-assistant principal, appeared in Year Two and is a godsend. So is our talented Director of Special Ed, Lily Cross. Usha Baxter joined us from Day One as a dedicated office manager/disciplinary dean/chief bottle washer and continues to provide much-needed support and stability. Stephanie Riley, our school counselor who appeared in Year Four, takes great care of our kids’ individual academic issues and socio-emotional needs. Other people joined us in our administrative office who wear various hats and we couldn’t live without them — Mayra Monroy, Magaly Vasquez, Addy Guzman.
We left the initial CMO with a major fire on our tails to find a more stable one to house us as we weren’t yet anywhere near ready to stand on our own. We joined another one, and changed our school name to blend into the new CMO’s overarching program. Even though we were having a wonderful time in serving our kids — winning awards, staging school theatre and rock concerts, and getting them into stupendously great colleges all over the country — we were so grateful to the CMO, but differences in philosophies and subcultures between us made that three-year-long period unworkable and grueling. Brad left us during that period out of frustration in trying to successfully find a happy place within that CMO’s extended structure, but he remains our close ally while doing other things, and helps us whenever he can — he’s still “family” to us.
State-level rules and regs changed and threatened to do us in. That one’s a long story in and of itself. Suffice it to say it took a small and dedicated team of us close to two years to find our way through the public education maze of bureaucracy — and to ultimately achieve our own standalone charter minus difficult CMO management within the necessary oversight of LAUSD. Our school name is finally settled in as Valley International Preparatory High School — VIP for short. We’ve moved out of our first campus in Van Nuys because that facility was woefully obsolete, and would never have passed muster within strict LAUSD guidelines.
A smart retired attorney named Bob Moore who was a satisfied father of one of our graduates — and who had prior experience in working on education measures with Governor Jerry Brown in Sacramento back in the day — intuited our need for someone with his skillset to join us and thankfully, he did. So our little group pressed on, Bob helped us figure out the complicated parameters of California’s Prop 39, which facilitated our LAUSD-assigned move to a (albeit temporary) co-location on the Chatsworth High School campus.
It was a challenging physical transition as Chatsworth is far from our previous Van Nuys facility… which means a sizable percentage of the families we served from Studio City/North Hollywood/Sherman Oaks couldn’t wrap their minds around carrying out that daily commute. So once we landed in our corner of the Chatsworth campus, we essentially started all over again. Our opening enrollment took a hit, and we’re now still adjusting to the changes.
Slowly but surely,
…we are now getting the word out and building our enrollment up to where we left off in the Van Nuys-located period. We’ve secured a viable future facility in the southeast area of Northridge, which is closer to our original group of families as well as to Cleveland High School, and if all goes as planned, we’ll move into that very nice dream-of-a-building at some point in 2021.
All in all, our kids and parents appear to be happy with the job we’re doing. 90% of our Class of ‘19 — VIP’s first graduating class in the new facility under the auspices of the newly acquired LAUSD charter — landed in four-year colleges and universities throughout the USA…from University of Chicago to Sarah Lawrence College to UC Berkeley to USC…all sorts, all sizes, all selectivity levels.
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Our tiny school’s hallowed speech/debate team as led by Iain has been named a Top-10 program in the nation by the National Speech and Debate Association for the last two years’ running. It currently occupies the #2-ranked position. Our kids hold various #1 through #10 positions in individual events at the national level, besting competitive efforts of roughly 150,000 kids. We hold numerous State-level and local titles. These activities have been a very big deal to us from the get go.
There is so much more…too much to cover here. It’s been such a quality experience and kids are so worth the trouble.
How can we get in touch with your school?
Our website is viphs.org, and one can view our Events Calendar there. We hold twice-monthly evening info sessions. Also, we have a great and informative Facebook page — look for VIP High School. We’re proud of the fact that The Hollywood Reporter just named us one of the top 15 public high schools — here’s the link to the article: Top 15 High Schools
How and why did you start college counseling?
I enrolled in UCLA Extension’s Professional Certificate in College Counseling program, fixated on it, ate it up with a spoon, as they say. At the end of the program, a candidate must complete an internship of one’s own devising within some high school setting that one is required to scare up on one’s own. I was clueless as to how I’d actually make it happen for myself as I knew absolutely no one who worked in a high school other than my own kids’ school… and how obnoxious would I have been to start hassling them to let me come hang around there?
A friend I’d made through the UCLA program led me to a fledgling charter high school in Van Nuys called Champs, and she pitched me on pitching them the idea of us charging them a consulting fee to handle their first class of graduating seniors. She’d been the student-teaching supervisor at CSU Los Angeles of a new English teacher at that school who’d told her that they needed a lot of help in this area. We set up a meeting, shot them our (over)price, they balked, and on the way out the door, I had a split-second notion, turned to them and blurted out “Hey. I’m finishing my UCLA program and I’m required to complete X amount of hours doing free college counseling in a school. Would you like for me to come work for you for free for a little while?” They looked relieved to be solving their problem for the time being, and the founder happily spat out “Of course!”
“I scribbled a sign with a pencil and yellow paper that read ‘College Counselor’, drew a downward arrow and sat down beneath it”
So…the next day I took time away from my job (I was my own boss) for a few hours, arrived at the school where my internship would begin — which in those days was housed within a shared, cramped church facility on Van Nuys Blvd. — noted the incredibly massive level of chaos (that’s nowadays so familiar to me as an unavoidable start-up period in any new charter school situation), surmised there was no desk or corner anywhere for me to sit… so I grabbed a folding table and two chairs from the multi-purpose room, dragged them out to an outdoor patio near some classrooms and basketball court, set myself up, scribbled a sign with a pencil and yellow paper that read “College Counselor,” drew a downward arrow, taped it up high on a post, sat down beneath it, and awaited my first-ever student customer to notice me, land in the folding chair across the table from me — and I was clueless just how that first interchange would actually roll out.
Initially, I thought “Ok, I’ll do this freebie thing for the requisite X hours, and then I’ll be on my way, will open a tiny office somewhere off Ventura Blvd.– or something — you know? Start in!” But what happened in those first outdoor moments on the concrete slab floored me, spun my head around. That young charter school was (and still is) an arts-specialty charter school, and in those days, the Millikan Middle School Performing Arts Magnet was its one-and-only feeder school. So one actor/dancer/musician after another plopped down in front of me, and in virtually every instance, the conversation went something like this: Me: So…it’s the middle of your senior year. Where have you applied to college?” Student (brightly): “Juilliard!” Me: “Wow! That’s pretty SWELL! So…where else? What if you aren’t accepted to Juilliard? (Dear Reader, in case you are unaware, know that The Juilliard School is one of the most selective colleges on the planet). Student: “What if I’m not…accepted to Juilliard? What…if I don’t get in? (Silence. A beat passes. Student looks upward at the sky with furrowed brow and slowly speaks.) “Well… I guess… I guess… I dunno… I guess I’ll just go to Valley College!”
Those initial moments… interactions with kids who were very much like me in my young days, and not even a little like my own hyper-college-counseled, carefully educated, Harvard-Westlake-graduated offspring, were like a smack on the head. These innocents who sat in front of me knew nothing of what I spoke. Their parents knew nothing of what I thought. No one in this little start-up school knew a single thing about my ever-developing college game board. By the way, no one from that Class of ‘09 was admitted to Juilliard… and I’m pretty certain no one from that school has been admitted to Juilliard to this very day. No slur on the school here — Juilliard is a ridiculously difficult hit.
I realized these LAUSD kids needed me
In what seemed like a millisecond, I realized these LAUSD kids — students in the Valley’s behemoth public high school world — needed me a whole lot more than a small cache of “worried wealthy” folks I could maybe scare up in and around Ventura Blvd. Throughout my whole life, I’d always wanted to find a purpose that actually meant something. I wanted to help others, but what could I possibly do that actually mattered? Nothing ever seemed viable. I’d finally been delivered my purpose.
So I started in earnest to build a college program at Champs and it turned out to be a raging success. My internship turned into a fulltime job. I eventually acquired the title Director of College Advising and trained a wonderful person to work alongside me who is there to this day. Kids went to Brown, Yale, Northwestern, NYU, Sarah Lawrence, Bard… just all sort of places. It was a gas.
At a time when so much is going on in the world that can pull us apart, it is beautiful to see people coming together to truly help each other.
Thank you Anne for stepping up!
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