A specter of tyranny is haunting Silver Lake, Los Angeles. At Camelot Kids, a preschool in the ultra-hip east side of the city, where parents pay $18,000 a year for their progeny to have a full-service alternative nursery school experience, this summer saw a wave of toddler purges, mass teacher firings, and public recriminations; there are rumors of coups, conspiracies, lawsuits. The situation has become, as one mother put it, “a preposterous yuppie nightmare.”

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Fueling the drama: The rapid gentrification of neighborhoods like Silver Lake, where many preschools used to be affordable, parent-run co-ops, with a distinctly non-profit flavor. But with the arrival of the privileged class comes a fleet of mommy entrepreneurs who funnel their creative energies into starting probiotic cookie businesses, designing vanity shapewear lines, and flipping neighborhood schools into exclusive boutiques—essentially a SoulCycle business model for early education. In neighborhoods where property values have soared over the last decade, the momtrepreneurs have found fertile ground to exploit the vulgar notion that the right preschool is the sole entry point to a pneumatic tube that deposits their offspring 13 years later into the Ivy League.

Camelot Kids is considered one of “the right” preschools in Silver Lake.

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Topping out at $1,460 a month (not including sign up fees), the for-profit Camelot offers everything from daycare and toddler yoga to “aboriginal” dance classes. It’s run by Renae Plant, an Australian native, former model, and maternity line entrepreneur, who serves as the school’s director. She’s often credited by Silver Lake locals with saving Camelot from closure by mortgaging her own family house to buy the campus, as well as with reinventing the preschool as an exclusive fulcrum for the sons and daughters of the Eastside’s creative types. In interviews with Jezebel, parents and teachers have also described Plant as “a money-hungry name dropper,” and a “Mean Girl on crack.” During Plant’s reign, parents say, there were sorority-style group diets, and there was a party bus. There were arguments about everything from genocide to gentrification.

Jezebel readers were first introduced to Plant when some of the school’s current meltdown bubbled over onto Yelp and Facebook. Plant responded by publicly denouncing on Yelp both the parents and a child she’d expelled. During that same time Plant also fired off an ominous email warning to parents:

If any parent has a question or concern they can address it with myself or administration directly and individually, as you know our door is always open. If any parent is unhappy with our decision to make Camelot a happy positive place then you are more than welcome to find another preschool which makes you and your family HAPPY. Please do not show up on the first day of school, smile to my face, then gossip behind my back and expect me to take care of your child each day.

Jezebel spoke with former Camelot staff and parents whose children have either been expelled or pulled from the school. One teacher who was terminated this summer describes Plant as the main problem plaguing Camelot Kids. “She should not be running a preschool. If she wants to make money and work with kids she should open a baby clothes boutique. Renae is too ruthless, too much of a bully, to be anything but a disservice to families.”

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Plant refused multiple offers to comment on this article.

A PLACENTA WALKS INTO THE DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL SERVICES

Google “Renae Plant.” Once you scroll past the typical Los Angeles triptych of Facebook, LinkedIn and IMDB profiles you’ll discover a glamorous woman with spongy boundaries and a distinctly uterine fixation.

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On Plant’s maternity clothing line site BumpBabies, her headshot is easy proof of her modeling chops. Plant has a big symmetrical face: open, and warm like a house cat’s.

Mothers and teachers alike describe Plant as a gregarious, tall, and forceful woman who will share strangely intimate details and expect yours in return. “At first I thought it was just a bit of eccentricity,” one former Camelot mother says, “but now I just think it’s creepy.”

On the BumpBabies site, under the “My Story” header, Plant explains, in third person, that she was born in a small rural town in Australia and her “mum gave birth to Renae an all fours in a mere 20 minutes (yes you can hate her).” Plant also mentions how she generously donated her eggs to a friend, even though “her own biological clock was ticking with no Mr. Right in sight.”

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The end of Plant’s bio mentions all the celebrities who have worn her clothing: “Jenna Elfman, Matt Damon’s wife Luciana Barroso, John Travolta’s wife Kelly Preston, Gillian Anderson…” She ends with: “Oh, and she most recently saved and runs her kids [sic] local preschool Camelot Kids.”

The story of Camelot’s rescue is documented in a feverish and at times incoherent 77-slide PowerPoint presentation meant for the crop of Camelot new hires and shared with Jezebel. The file was redistributed out to parents after the recent controversy as an attachment to the email referenced above.

The PowerPoint tells the grand narrative of Camelot’s revival, after it was shut down temporarily in 2007 due to health and safety violations. Plant successfully fundraised for months to make repairs, recruited teachers to work for no pay in order to meet staffing ratios, and eventually was able to successfully get the Department of Social Services to reopen Camelot in 2008.

Slides from the PowerPoint.


While Plant was busy gestating and rebirthing Camelot, she was also pregnant with her third child—a felicitous coincidence that Plant has hammered into every bit of Camelot PR, from teacher orientation to fundraising events. Indeed, Plant even devotes a slide in her PowerPoint deck to the fact that her third child’s placenta was still attached when DDS allowed Camelot to reopen its doors. Cleaning toilets, painting classrooms, hitting up neighbors for cash: Plant, like her mum, gave birth to Camelot on all fours.

THE DAD WHO KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST

Lex Steppling, a former Camelot father and professional nonprofit organizer whose work focuses primarily on racial justice and awareness, found himself wincing at Camelot’s 2014 Thanksgiving Day pageant, when he saw his daughter Aurelia in a row of toddlers dressed up in Pilgrim and Indian drag. “Well, shit,” Steppling thought. “Guess I won’t be putting this on Facebook.”

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Instead, Steppling sent a gentle email to Plant, telling her that he enjoyed watching his daughter blossom at Camelot but the holiday pageant left him uneasy because of its crude depiction of Native American stereotypes. He added:

The mythology behind Thanksgiving is one that tends to avoid any questions of racism, genocide, and cultural appropriation, but frankly, that is exactly what we are both celebrating and absolving when we have our children don these costumes.

Steppling politely offered to conduct an informal training session on Native identity with Camelot staff—a service he is often hired to do by school administrators, companies, and government officials. Steppling closed the email by expressing his hope for a dialogue and “to make Camelot Kids a safe space for all who attend.”

Plant’s response was immediately dismissive. First, she accused Steppling of missing the point of the pageant, i.e. “a community coming together for a SAFE place to belong, regardless of what people were wearing.” Her dismissiveness became more explicit when she suggested that Steppling should remove his daughter from the school altogether [sic’d]:

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“Considering you don’t feel Camelot a safe place because of kids handmade art projects I would strongly consider looking for a more appropriate learning environment Aurelia.”

Steppling, disturbed by Plant’s response, asked to meet in order to clear the air. The meeting that transpired was, as Steppling describes it, short, hostile, and incoherent. “I was just hoping to have a fruitful conversation,” Steppling says. “Instead I encountered this incredibly nasty woman and her husband who only offered platitudes, and told me to ‘stop living in the past’ and then accused me of threatening them.”

Steppling pulled Aurelia out of Camelot because Plant and her hubby seemed “unhinged,” he says. But he still felt that there were many well-meaning teachers who could benefit from the sort of conversation Steppling had hoped to start. He sent an email to the staff describing the failed meeting with Plant and her husband, closing it with links to resources and education around Native identity.

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At 5:01 a.m. the following morning, Plant fired back a reply-all email to Steppling and staff in which she mocked Steppling and registered her own grievances about Thanksgiving:

Thank you Lex for your very long narrative addressing the entire staff of Camelot Kids. As the “Executive Director” and with our schools safety compromised by your emails and threats over the past weekend I had already forwarded your concerns/emails to them and they are very clear on my response.

During our meeting I did forget to tell you that I am a vegetarian and from Australia And I am appalled how this wonderful county called the USA in which we both live slaughters millions of turkey’s each year when families come together to celebrate the death of pilgrims and Indians. We don’t eat turkey to celebrate the death of Aborigines where I come from but like I said in our meeting I do respect the traditions of this country in which I choose to live.

I stand by my teachers and their art projects and remind you that at no time was the SAFETY of any child compromised during our gorgeous Thanksgiving luncheon when our Camelot community came together to eat.

Go and conquer LAUSD with your play... FYI it’s much more fun scrubbing toilets every Wednesday at King Middle School like my hubby and I do. One day you will thank us for the positive change we make in this community vs focusing on the past.

Please do not harass my staff any further with your banter and do not contact Camelot Kids again. Any such contact will be reported to the police.

Best of luck.

Plant’s oddly specific harangue about scrubbing toilets at a local junior high may seem like a clumsy jab. But to readers familiar with Silver Lake’s rapidly stratifying caste system, the comment appears to be more pointed.

In the ‘80s and early ’90s, Silver Lake was more of a place for struggling families than struggling actors. Nestled in the foothills of East L.A., the predominantly Latino neighborhood absorbed an influx of Los Angeles’s gay leather subculture and became home to gang injunctions, prostitution stings, and really excellent heroin. 20 years of gentrification—low rent for well-heeled artists, some upscale taquerias, bars with photobooths—landed Silver Lake in the pages of Forbes as the Hippest Hipster neighborhood of 2012, and now Silver Lake is known for its rehabbed Craftsman bungalows, artisanal soap shops, and pastel-colored Vespas. Working-class remnants still exist through some low-income housing, the service workers who cook the vegan-friendly food, and the two mega-public schools that serve populations from around all of East LA.

Thomas King Middle School is the last of Silver Lake’s public junior highs, with a predominantly Asian and Latino student body. Plant and her “hubby” have made it their personal mandate to beautify and upgrade the school, much like they did with Camelot. Plant is a founder of Friends of King, a volunteer parent group that picks up trash around the school and tends to its grotty bathrooms. Plant and Friends recently raised $30,000 to go toward giving the school a new paint job. “We wanted to transform [King] from looking like a prison to a paradise,” Plant told a local news site.

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Steppling believes that Plant’s prophecy about one day thanking her is a reference to the likelihood that his daughter will herself matriculate at King—presumably several years into the Plants’ grand project of it.

LULULEMONITES GONE WILD

When Renae Plant isn’t up at the NASDAQ bell firing off caustic emails, she likes to party, says Julia, a mother whose son attended Camelot Kids for two years. For years, Julia, an entertainment lawyer, was part of Renae’s inner circle. She refers to it as a “wine coven.”

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“Look, she’s a lot of fun, she’s loud and charismatic, but she’s also an total alpha–mean girl,” Julia says.

Plant doesn’t try to hide her life-of-the-party reputation. On her Facebook page, there are pictures of her falling down at a recent birthday party, sprawled out on the floor, being tended to by grinning, flushed-faced friends. There’s also a YouTube workout parody video, recently set to private, that Plant and her friends made to detail the “Uptown Ab Fab Workout.” Plant and her fellow Lululemonites pantomime popping pills and chugging Chardonnay while doing bicycle crunches to Bruno Mars.

Plant’s influence among the Camelot mommies was potent enough to convince roughly 25 of them to join her on a diet plan. “Renae knew some fancy doctor in Pasadena who gave her this celebrity-style diet plan,” Julia says, “and she recruited half the moms at the school to join her on it, like she was the president of their sorority house.”

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While Julia didn’t participate in the sorority diet or pill-popping Pilates parody, she did indulge in the partying. In 2011, for Plant’s birthday, Plant and her husband rented a 40-person party bus for a day trip to Long Beach. “The bus was packed, mostly with parents from the school,” Julia says. “It was a weekend and we were told we could drop our kids off at Camelot and the teachers would be there to babysit until we got back from Long Beach.”

With their offspring being tended to by Camelot staff on their day off, the parents on the party bus went, to put it mildly, wild. Booze and champagne started to flow by the time the bus pulled onto the southbound highway. The party went to a restaurant and hit a few bars in the South Bay and by the time the crew got back on the bus, “almost everybody was drunk,” according to Julia.

“Other parents were using ecstasy, and some were doing blow,” she says. “At one point we had to pull the bus over because this couple got too drunk and needed to get off to throw up.” The long drive back to Silver Lake gave most of the parents enough time to sober up before picking up the kiddies and driving them home.

THE FIRING SQUAD

After Plant’s three children passed through the vaulted arches of Camelot in 2012, her attentions were pulled elsewhere—a spacious Mommy and Me complex for prospective families, fundraising for her children’s’ elementary school, King Middle School beautification, and so on. In her stead she installed a four-person administration that she eventually turned into her personal firing squad.

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“She really checked out,” said a recently fired teacher, who was a favorite among parents and students. This teacher, who we’ll call Rita, would play the French horn for her students and bring in fellow musicians for Rock ‘n’ Roll classes and music appreciation. “While Renae can be really intense and emotional,” Rita says, “she can also be a great leader, because she’s willing to experiment and give the teachers a lot of freedom and explore a curriculum that excites the kids.” When Plant let her administration take over, the curriculum became more rigid, Rita says; Plant was only around for pickup and dropoff.

According to Rita and several former Camelot teachers, a major component of the new administration’s regime was exam-based grant funding. “Basically, it’s a series of hoops for the kids to jump through so the school could get more cash,” one teacher who resigned from Camelot earlier this year says. “The exams aren’t bad in and of themselves, but it really clashed with the spirit of Camelot and what attracted many teachers and to it.”

Indeed, Silver Lake parents paid $1,460 a month to a for-profit-deconstructed Montessori exactly so their tadpoles could bypass the Wheels-on-the-Bus-Go-Round bullshit and instead build sand castles while listening to Coltrane under the care of a cool teacher who had her own band.

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At the start of the summer session this year, teachers began to chafe at the new administration and their exams, and that’s when Plant cracked down.

“We were told to come to school for a mandatory 6 a.m. meeting towards the end of August,”recalls one teacher who was eventually fired along with three others this summer. “Renae was there and she brought her three kids who sat there and stared at us, while she screamed for 10 minutes straight.”

For a peek into Plant’s overall management style, her acronym-infused, psychobabble-heavy Power Point slides used for new staff orientation is a good start. Plant classifies good teachers as S.A.N.E. (Self-disciplined And Nurturing Enthusiasts). Bad teachers are categorized as D.U.C.K.S, (Dependent Upon Criticizing and Killing Success). The SANE are encouraged to confront the DUCKS when “they start quacking.” (This was casually referred to in a slide as “duck hunting season.”) To succeed at Camelot, Plant believes teachers must be H.A.P.P.Y: Having a Pleasing Personality Year-round.

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The message was clear: the new regime was here to stay. Those who did not fall in could either walk out the door or be shoved out. After the meeting, two teachers immediately resigned. In the coming weeks, three more teachers who were vocal critics of the administration were also fired. Five out of the 16 teachers at Camelot were purged by August.

Another teacher, who left Camelot in 2014 because of its “toxic environment,” said that the benefit of the school is that “kids do find a great community, and there are devoted teachers. But the conditions are unhealthy to work in, since you feel like you always have to walk on eggshells because of Renae and the administration. A child screaming can cause anyone to snap or yell because it’s such a tense environment.”

THE COCKTAIL PARTY PUTSCH

The summer’s teacher blood bath set Camelot parents a-titter with anxiety and gossip. With three teachers fired in one day and two others set to resign, it was unclear who would actually be teaching their kids after Labor Day. Patty, a Camelot mom, tried to ease tensions by hosting a cocktail party for parents to chat about the upcoming fall session. Even though Camelot is a for-profit operation, Patty and her cohort of parents are big-money donors, who have contributed over $80,000 in supplies and upgrades: they financed fridges, treehouses, renovations, and construction on something called “the womb room.”

Patty posted the cocktail party invite to her Camelot playdate Facebook page and didn’t think too much more about it. Then, as intrigue over the fired teachers ballooned over Labor Day weekend, Patty decided to reach out to Plant and also invite her to the cocktail party. “I didn’t want her to feel as though we were gossiping about her or trying to exclude her,” she says.

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But it was too late. Word of the cocktail party already reached Plant. Suspicious that Patty was attempting to lead some sort of parent co-op coup, Plant lashed out in an email:

Hi Patty,

Thank you for your email. It was brought to my attention that you were inviting parents to your house not to do a K-6 talk as you claim but to bring [FIRED TEACHER] to find out what is going on at Camelot. First and foremost I would like to remind you that [REDACTED] employment at Camelot was terminated and everything at Camelot between Camelot employees and parents is confidential. Having any group parent meeting with her is not in anyone’s best interest and is not going to solve anything. In fact if this does occur it will leave me no choice but to ask all parents in attendance of any such meeting to find alternative care for their children for the new year, for not respecting Camelot’s policy and procedures.

Livi [HUSBAND] and I will not be attending any parent group meeting as this is not a parent co-op and this school is not run or dictated by parents. If any parent has a question or concern they can address it with myself or administration directly. If any parent is unhappy with my decision to make Camelot a happy positive place then they are more than welcome to find another preschool which makes them HAPPY which as you know yourself, you have done before.

Moving forward I would appreciate that you do not communicate with any teachers and parents at Camelot in that way again. Please help us keep it positive and it strictly professional and allow us to carry out our jobs in a strictly professional manner.

I know you parents feel connected to teachers but at the end of the day you need to trust that what happened was in the best interest for Layla and for Camelot as a whole. I do not entertain parents/teachers who go about destroying something that takes years to create.

This is an extremely busy week at Camelot during staff development and training so I appreciate your support in helping de-escalate v’s escalate emotions during this transitional time.

Have a gorgeous day.

Patty canceled the cocktail party to smooth the waters and apologized for overstepping. Nevertheless, Plant interpreted the event as an act of subversion that could not be tolerated. Patty’s four-year-old daughter, Layla, needed to be disappeared from Camelot as retribution. In a follow-up email, Plant wrote:

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Dear [REDACTED]

It makes me really sad that something you did has put sweet Layla’s incredible love for Camelot in jeopardy too.…

Why would you want to instigate such a destructive path and host this kind of event at your home and promote it on social media? That is beyond my comprehension, is extremely dangerous behavior and we do not tolerate that at Camelot.

Camelot administration and myself have made the unanimous decision that we are not willing to offer a spot for Layla for the new school year.

We wish you and your family all the very best.

Layla, according to her mother, is “heartbroken that she couldn’t do ‘her last big-girl year’ with all her friends at Camelot.”

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It appears as though Layla’s expulsion was insufficient reinforcement of Plant’s status as the silverback of Camelot’s jungle gym. Unappeased, Plant decided to end the matter by going full-tilt Colonel Kurtz, and issued an apocalyptic sermon about the future state of Camelot via email blast to parents.

Dear CK parents,

First and foremost I would like to remind you ALL as parents, that everything at Camelot between Camelot employees and parents is confidential. The exact same confidentially applies when we deal with parent to parent issues involving your children each day.

Having any group parent meeting is not in anyone’s best interest and is not going to solve anything. In fact if this does occur it will leave me no choice but to ask all parents in attendance of any such meeting to find alternative care for their children for the new year, for not respecting Camelot’s policy and procedures.

Livi and I will not be attending any parent group meeting as unlike other schools this is not a parent co-op and this school is not run or dictated by parents. It is run by trained professionals. We do not breed or tolerate any gang-like mentality. I would like to kindly remind everyone that this is not the end of the world, this is preschool.

I know as parents you feel connected to teachers but at the end of the day they are not your friends. You need to trust what happened was in the best interest for your children for Camelot as a whole. We do not entertain or tolerate parents/teachers who go about destroying something that takes years to create.

If any parent has a question or concern they can address it with myself or administration directly and individually, as you know our door is always open. If any parent is unhappy with our decision to make Camelot a happy positive place then you are more than welcome to find another preschool which makes you and your family HAPPY. Please do not show up on the first day of school, smile to my face, then gossip behind my back and expect me to take care of your child each day.

Moving forward I would like to remind you that your obligation to Camelot as a parent is to uphold it’s integrity by helping us keep it positive, strictly professional and allow us to carry out our jobs in a strictly professional manner. As parents you have a choice to trust, support and embrace Camelot and our decisions or please choose alternative care.

This is an extremely busy week at Camelot during staff development and training so I appreciate your support in helping de-escalate v’s escalate emotions during this transitional time. I am super excited for you all to meet our new staff members who are super excited to meet you all and start this year on a positive note.

I have attached a power point that my hubby and I made last week which shows the history of Camelot and what POSITIVITY has the POWER to do in our community. We hope that you want to continue with us on this magical journey!!!

CAMELOT = COMMUNITY

LONG LIVE CAMELOT

Have a gorgeous day.

Renae Plant

In response, Layla’s father sent a note to Plant that went unanswered:

A school is not a normal place of work. It is literally the centerpiece of each constituent family’s life. It is natural, appropriate, and inevitable that the kids and parents will form emotional relationships with the teachers, and vice versa. When you fire a bunch of well liked teachers all at once, of course folks will become upset and confused and scared, and want an explanation. WHAT DID YOU THINK WAS GOING TO HAPPEN? Maybe you were right to take that action. You certainly had the right to as the owner and boss. I really don’t know about the first and don’t question the second. But you’re foolish to think that parents would not have feelings about it, and want to talk about it. With each other, and with you directly. Having an opinion or feeling you don’t like is not the same as challenging your authority. Your employees and your customers are not extensions of your ego. However inconvenient it may have been for you, a better course of action would have been to tolerate the parents natural feelings, allow them to process them among themselves, and patiently walk through the discomfort. People would have been reassured. Instead you now have chaos.

Layla’s family are suing Plant for her arbitrary and capricious expulsion of Layla.

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While a handful of parents pulled their children out of Camelot after the email fracas, there is no imminent threat to Camelot. For one, Plant recently revised Camelot’s admissions agreement; it now includes a $1,000 fee for parents who pull their child out of school without a 30-day notice. Further, a cursory glance at Yelp shows that while Plant may be polarizing, she has more vocal followers than haters. “Whether it is building Camelot Kids (from the ground up) or transforming Thomas Starr King,” one Yelper writes, “Renae Plant’s contributions to this community are significant, and we, along with many other families, are fortunate to have benefited from her hard work and dedication.”

If the past ten centuries have taught us anything, the idea of Camelot is easy to attack, but it’s also difficult to destroy.

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*Several names and professions have been changed in order to protect our sources’ anonymity.


Illustration by Jim Cooke

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Contact the author at natasha@jezebel.com.