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Special School to Close in June : Education: Escalon Center teaches and counsels emotionally disturbed students. But financial woes force the decision to shut down.

May 26, 1994|DEBORAH SULLIVAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

After several years of scraping by on a dwindling budget, an Altadena school that serves the most severely emotionally disturbed students from surrounding school districts will close its doors June 23.

Since 1959, the Escalon Center has been teaching students who were branded unmanageable in regular classes and special education programs. On an Altadena site shaded by orange and lemon trees and graced by a view of the San Gabriel Mountains, 75 students learn academic basics in classes with a 5-1 ratio of students to teachers. They also receive counseling for the problems that brought them here.

But a chain of financial crises is forcing the school to close this year, to the dismay of students who have enjoyed the tranquil setting and individualized attention.

"This is about the best school I've ever seen," said Vickie Williams, whose 10-year-old son, Jeff, is legally blind and suffers from behavioral problems related to his deteriorating vision.

"Jeff, due to his vision, becomes very frustrated and angry," she said. "Public schools aren't set up to deal with kids they can't control all the time. . . . At Escalon, he was excited. His first day he came home and said, 'Mom, they actually taught me math. I got to read and write. I got to play softball, basketball.' "

Escalon is a private nonprofit school funded by donations, grants and payments from school districts whose students it serves--Pasadena, Burbank, Glendale and Los Angeles.

But the grants and donations have dried up because of the recession, Escalon Director Nancy Davidson said. Two thrift stores that benefited the school went bankrupt. And the center has not received cost-of-living increases from the cash-strapped school districts in four years.

Although the center receives about $2,000 per student per month, it is not enough to pay for the high number of staff per student, the behavioral specialist, counselors, vocational training program and transportation.

In the past few years, Davidson said, the average age of students has dropped and their disorders have become more severe. Before, Escalon primarily served students with learning disabilities. Now its students include those with prenatal substance abuse syndrome and teen-agers involved in gang violence.

"It has driven up the cost of educating them, but it has not driven up the reimbursement," Davidson said.

The school districts that send students to Escalon will decide with the parents where the children will go next. Some will attend other private schools. Others will return to public school.

"I think that when a student is given (money to attend a special school), the point of it is to get students to the point where they can come back to a public school--it is not to fund them forever," said Jane Stone, director of special education for the Pasadena Unified School District.

A few students, including Chris Davis, 18, are graduating. Davis, who said he has emotional problems, has attended Escalon for three years and plans to enroll in Glendale Community College next year.

"If this place hadn't been around when I was here, I wouldn't be graduating and going to college," he said.

Jose Anaya and Jerry Figueroa, both 18, are near-casualties of gang warfare who found refuge at Escalon. Both participated in gangs in their previous high schools. Anaya was stabbed with a screwdriver. Figueroa was stabbed and shot.

"Right here you can't get jumped," Figueroa said.

Anaya agreed. "It's safe. When you need help, they come and help you."

Anaya and Figueroa will return to public schools next year. They said they are not worried about gang problems because they will attend different high schools than before.

Their teacher, Karla Thomas, is not sure it will be that easy. "It's too bad the school's closing," she said. "The system's working against us. We're trying to save our children, but we're losing the race."

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