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Children at Mental Hospital Take Classes--and Find Learning Heals

July 03, 1988|EDMUND NEWTON | Times Staff Writer

Normal day at the Ingleside Hospital School in Rosemead. Drab basement room with green chalk boards, movable desks and, on the front wall, a black-and-white photograph of Mount St. Helens, volcanic smoke billowing upward.

A blond girl grapples gamely with square roots ("I've been at this for three days," she grumbles), three other girls reduce fractions and a boy works morosely on word problems. They are all patients at Ingleside Hospital, a 146-bed, nonprofit, acute-care psychiatric hospital.

Omer Tilford, principal of the school and teacher of the high school math class, gives the boy an appraising look. "How many problems did you do last night?" he asks.

"One," says the boy, pushing his homework to the front of his desk.

Tilford winces. "You need more time? I'd hate to work you to death."

The boy's eyes remain averted.

"How'd you like to have your hair cut off like me?" growls Tilford, a muscular man with a bald, bullet-shaped dome who is commonly referred to by students as "Boss."

The boy gravely considers a reply.

"Watch out what you say," Tilford hastily warns. "If you say 'no,' you're saying you don't like my hair. If you say 'yes,' I might bring in my scissors."

The boy grins at Tilford's whimsical threat and digs into his assignment.

According to hospital administrators, Tilford and other special education teachers at this ambitious school, which offers four hours a day of schooling for troubled youngsters age 6 to 18, have turned a state requirement--that children hospitalized for long periods of time receive instruction--from a stopgap measure into a boon.

While some hospitals provide perfunctory tutoring, the Ingleside school aims to give students a fresh view of school.

"The school operates from the basic premise that, rather than cramming as much information into kids' heads as possible, you should give them some pleasure in learning," says Richard Atkins, director of the adolescent program, which has a shifting clientele of about 40.

That means allowing youngsters to work at their own pace, emphasizing successes rather than failures and clearing the air of the atmosphere of recrimination that troubled youngsters so often experience in school. "What you need is a confidence pill," Tilford tells the girl who is floundering with square roots. (By the end of the class, she has mastered the discipline.)

Tilford, who has been working at the school for 22 years, practices a kind of jujitsu instruction. He comes at the students obliquely, challenging them, throwing them off balance, then gently setting them down, their defenses breached but their self-esteem intact.

"They learn basic things here--to listen, to communicate," says Tilford.

The difference is apparent to the students. "Here you can ask questions," said a 16-year-old girl with cascading brown hair. "In my regular school, if you asked them to explain something one more time, you got yelled at, so you were afraid to ask."

Mix of Ages, Levels

Operating out of a suite of basement classrooms in the hospital complex on East Hellman Avenue, the school has something of the odd mix of ages and achievement levels of the old single-room country schoolhouse. "You might have second-graders doing simple addition next to eighth-graders working on pre-algebra problems," says Paul Fusco, who teaches grammar school and junior high school students.

Nowadays, most adolescent psychiatric hospital programs operate schools, says Dr. James Skalicky, a therapist at Sierra Royale Hospital in Glendora who did his dissertation on hospital schools. "It's a diagnostic tool. In a classroom, the teacher can see things like a kid's frustration tolerance, his problem-solving skills, his self-esteem level."

One difference at Ingleside is that the hospital works closely with public school systems. All of the teachers are employed by local school districts--the Alhambra School District for high school and the Garvey Unified School District for lower grades.

176 Students

Teachers grapple with the special challenge of working for short terms with their students. Last year, 176 students came through, staying an average of 28 days. Many struggle with learning disabilities. Many have acute family problems that have led them to drugs or suicidal episodes.

But teachers contend that the results of Ingleside's stress-free environment can be, like the blow-up on Tilford's classroom wall, volcanic. So different is it from most public schools that, after years of pent-up curiosity or ambition, students can make sudden, explosive commitments to learning.

Take Laura (not her real name), an 18-year-old who was going nowhere fast when she signed herself into the hospital last March. She went from near drop-out status to high school graduation at Ingleside, where she earned 45 credits in less than three months.

"They really get you motivated here," says Laura, who gave a stirring valedictory address at a graduation ceremony at the hospital last month. "They tell you, 'Hey, you can do this.' "

Hated School

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