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'Problem' Boys Find Solutions at Altadena Home

November 19, 1989|JONATHAN GAW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ALTADENA — Bill spent most of his sixth-grade year at Sherman Oaks Elementary School engaging in schoolyard fights and playing basketball. Schoolwork was, at best, a distant concern.

But for the last 13 months, the 12-year-old North Hollywood boy has been in a very different kind of classroom. In the Re-Ed Program at the Sycamores, a home and school for emotionally disturbed boys in Altadena, he says he has improved a lot.

The Sycamores has a capacity of 60 children, 12 of whom are in the Re-Ed Program. Six to 14 years old, most of them come from middle-class homes. Some have been abused and neglected. All suffer from psychiatric or psychological problems.

"Some of these kids have had some kind of trauma--a divorce, a death; sometimes it's abuse--and they've not been able to cope with or recover from those traumas," said Donna Parker, supervisor of the program.

"They start to manifest a lot of behavioral and emotional problems, and it deteriorates to the point that they can't be managed at home or in school."

The boys usually suffer from one of two problems: They are depressed and withdraw from social situations, or they get into fights, destroy property, throw tantrums and sometimes even assault their parents.

"These kids have learned a whole mechanism of inappropriate coping skills and inappropriate problem-solving skills," Parker said. "Therefore, when we receive the child, our goal is to re-educate the child, teach him new problem-solving, new coping skills."

As Bill puts it: "They're here to re-educate you to do better in society."

Parker said the Re-Ed Program employs an unusual brand of therapy.

"The ecological approach tries to involve everybody who is involved in the kid's little 'ecosystem,' " she said.

"If there's a neighbor who is really involved with the child and wants to help, then the clinician will be contacting that neighbor and talking about the child and saying: 'Here's what you can do to help.' "

The treatment also emphasizes working with the group as a whole. The 12 Re-Ed children at the Sycamores are separated into two group homes of six. Each group does everything together: cooking meals, going to school and shopping for dinner.

They also deal with one another's problems together, whenever they arise.

"If it's Johnny's turn to cook and Johnny is having a problem, well, that's going to affect whether or not the whole group gets their food on the table," Parker said.

"They have to sit down and talk to the kid about whatever his problem is and help him resolve it and get on with his morning so that they can eat and get out the door to school."

For the program to work, teachers must be involved in all aspects of the child's life. They work closely with the Sycamores' psychological and medical staff to serve the child's needs.

Gary Sherwin, a Re-Ed teacher-counselor for the last four years, is there at 7 a.m. to eat breakfast with the boys and stays with them most of the day, both in the classroom and outside it.

Sherwin, who formerly taught at a high school in Colorado and at the Brooklyn Council of the Arts in New York, said he prefers the Sycamores because he can get to know the children better and have greater effect as a teacher.

"In this situation, I have six students," Sherwin said. "We have breakfast together, so I see them in a home setting as well as an academic setting. And I get a better picture of who they are and really feel like I'm having an impact some of the time on some of these kids."

Although most of the classes are geared to slower learners, some of the children are learning at a level consistent with their age group, Parker said.

The boys' emotional and behavioral problems also prevent them from leading typical lives at home. The Re-Ed Program emphasizes working with each child's family and preparing a home environment that feels comfortable when he eventually returns.

Re-educating the parents is as important as re-educating their children, Parker said.

"They want to be good parents; they want their kids to do well in school," she said. "Some parents need some individual help before they can begin to be more effective parents, and so the clinician will provide that or hook the parent up with that service in the community."

Weekend visitations--required for most of the residents--also help prevent the family from treating the child as an outsider when he returns home.

Only three of the approximately 70 graduates of Re-Ed have had to return to the program. Most of the boys who leave are able to handle a less restrictive environment and move in permanently with their families while receiving regular counseling.

The Re-Ed Program was developed in the early 1960s by Nicholas Hobbs of Peabody College in Nashville, Tenn., as an alternative to psychiatric treatment in a hospital. The Re-Ed philosophy of treatment reached the Sycamores in 1983 by way of UCLA, where faculty in the Graduate School of Education had been studying it since 1979.

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