When office staffer Linda Reinbold was asked who was going to be replacing Phil Cott as principal of Webster Elementary School when he retires next month, she had a one-word reply, “Nobody.”
That sentiment is echoed throughout the teaching staff, parent roster and Webster alumni of the community. Famous for his costumes at the school’s annual Halloween parade and his collection of neckties, Cott will be stepping down after 23 years heading the school. In that time, he developed programs outside the traditional curriculum (gardening angels, ballroom dancing and vocal music), advocated for children’s whole education and, most of all, engendered universal respect and love.
Cott himself is not sure how his impending retirement will sit with him. “I’ve never been that person who thought, ‘Boy, I can’t wait till I can retire!’” Cott said. “I don’t really know what I’m going to do with my time.”
Not that he doesn’t have a lot of options. He’ll brush up on his tennis game, spend some mornings hiking and swimming, take some weekend trips with his wife who retired three years ago. Maybe help coach upcoming school administrators. But he knows it won’t be the same.
“Webster has been a huge part of my life and I know it will be a shock,” he said. “I don’t know that I’m happy about it.”
Many others are sad to see him go.
Former Webster PTA co-president Kathie Ferbas said that Cott was “the heart and soul” of the school. “The opportunities he has given to these kids are spectacular,” she said. “The field trips like the Astro Camp and the 5th grade trip to Yosemite were nothing short of transformative. He is one of those educators who is really passionate about the whole kid and recognizes that each one is a unique little person.”
Ferbas was especially impressed that Cott allowed and supported three university professors (herself, Susan Helm and Donna Nofziger Plank) to create and implement a science program that includes handson learning for K-5, in the absence of a district-provided science teacher. “With Phil leaving, it really is the end of an era,” Ferbas said.
Cott’s arrival in the principal’s position followed an eclectic career curve. After graduating from UCLA, Cott taught for 14 years, getting his first job before he was legally old enough to sign the contract. He was president of the teachers union for six years.
Then he went to law school at night, became a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney and practiced law for a few years. But he realized that the job made him miserable. So he returned to teaching, a passion he has encouraged in his staff.
Craig Foster, Webster teacher, parent and education activist, said that Cott hired him as a teacher after another principal told him he was too old to return to teaching, and always encouraged his individuality and creativity in class. “During my first year of teaching at Webster I started a fire doing a science experiment with my first-graders,” Foster said. “When I told Phil what happened, his response was that he was happy that I was doing science.”
Lore Meline has been Cott’s secretary at Webster since the first day of his tenure. She also is retiring when Cott steps down. “Mr. Cott is a totally hands-on person, and is always there to help, from carrying boxes, picking up papers, answering phones or helping with emotional needs of students,” Meline said. “His office door is always open.”
Meline credited Cott with programs that foster an all-around education besides academics, saying that the grass playing fields, the murals around the school and the different gardens were thanks to him, creating a warm and friendly environment for children.
When asked to reflect on his accomplishments, Cott deflected. “There’s not any one thing I can take credit for,” he said. “But I hired every teacher we have at Webster. And we have spectacular teachers.”
A celebration in honor of Cott and his also-retiring secretary Lore Meline will be held Sunday, June 9, from 4:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at Webster. The entire community is invited to bring their picnic baskets or nosh from the food trucks that will be there.
“I hear from everyone who passes through that the school has a happy culture and climate,” Cott said. “The children are there to learn and they are happy doing it.”