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Quaker Preschool Assumes a 'Hopeful' Attitude After Its Crisis

February 11, 1988|MARY BARBER | Times Staff Writer

A year after protests by teachers, parents and students rocked Pacific Oaks College and Children's School in Pasadena, survivors say the venerable Quaker institution is expected to recover from its worst crisis but may never be the same.

About half of the school's 22 teachers and administrators have been replaced after some were fired and others left in protest over the firings. At least a dozen families have put their children in other schools.

Pacific Oaks still must cope with a $150,000 deficit resulting from faculty raises and with a lawsuit filed by a 15-year teacher who claims that she was wrongfully terminated. It also faces a review in April by the Accrediting Commission of the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges, which gave it stinging criticism in 1985.

But Katherine Gabel, who has been at the center of controversy since she was hired as president in 1985, said: "I'm feeling pretty hopeful. We've definitely come around the corner."

In response to the poor accreditation report, the school's board of trustees hired Gabel to improve Pacific Oaks' academic standing. Because the board made its choice without following the Quaker practice of reaching decisions through consensus, some teachers and students became upset.

They became even more angry when Gabel fired some teachers and deans and filled several positions with people she chose without traditional input from the staff, students and parents. The school was also facing mounting debts because of inadequate financial management, and teachers' salaries were extremely low, the accreditation report concluded.

Gabel said the school's philosophy has remained the same, "deeply ingrained in the roots of Quaker tradition of peace, anti-bias and human development. But in management--that's where we are hopefully seeing some changes."

There are those, however, who say the changes have come at too high a price.

George Hedges resigned from the Pacific Oaks board of trustees and put his children in another school, calling the firings "the midnight massacre."

"I hope Pacific Oaks ultimately survives, but we could not be supportive of an institution that did things this way," Hedges said.

Founded as a preschool in 1945 by seven Quaker families who were conscientious objectors during World War II, Pacific Oaks has grown to include the first three grades of primary school and a small college that has a national reputation for teaching courses in innovative early childhood education.

Critics say that in the tumult that erupted last year, Pacific Oaks lost its Quaker principles of valuing individual worth, social justice and resolving conflicts through consensus.

But others say that Pacific Oaks now has the strong leadership it needs after years of floundering without clear direction, and that it is getting almost $1 million in grants from several foundations to bolster its $2-million annual budget.

Olin Barrett, chairman of the board of trustees, assessed Pacific Oaks as "still highly imperfect" but added: "There is progress . . . and the outlook is a little more upbeat."

Gabel said the school is "a Quaker-based institution, not a Quaker institution. Most of the programs are running beautifully."

Hundreds of Pasadena-area children have attended the children's school in a group of Craftsman-style bungalows on California Boulevard near the Arroyo Seco. For many years, Pacific Oaks has had an enrollment of about 200 children and long waiting lists for some of its classes. Instead of following traditional disciplines, children are encouraged to learn through play and by figuring things out for themselves.

College Nearby

The school's parent education classes expanded to become the college, which was accredited in 1959. It occupies two buildings on Westmoreland Place, next to Pasadena's famed Gamble House. Most college students work with classes at the children's school a few blocks away.

Gabel was hired in 1985, partly in response to the accreditation report, which said the school must make "profound changes in attitude and process in order to seek resolutions" to financial, personnel and academic problems.

"The college's expectations of a new president are overwhelming," the report said.

The accreditation report criticized Pacific Oaks for its "lack of academic rigor," low teacher salaries, financial instability, absence of long-range planning and "inbreeding," which it said was the result of more than half of the faculty receiving degrees from Pacific Oaks.

Gabel said she followed the trustees' directive to strengthen the school when she fired some long-term faculty and administrators and replaced them with people of her choice. The firings began in 1986 and continued until March, 1987.

Children Withdrawn

Charges of "un-Quaker-like" procedures flew as employees resigned, families withdrew their children and parents staged demonstrations.

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