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Parents, Founder Rally to Help Save Co-Op School : Education: County shuts down The Extraordinary Place until it can comply with day-care and licensing rules. The Windsor Hills facility has operated since 1986.

June 25, 1995|ERIN J. AUBRY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A highly regarded educational cooperative preschool in Windsor Hills was unexpectedly shut down last week by county authorities, but its founder and local parents are vowing to find a way to continue the cooperative's work.

Officials from the county Department of Public and Social Services closed The Extraordinary Place after responding to a complaint from an area resident about the number of children at the cooperative. The center was operating without a license at a home on Northridge Drive and had too many students, said June Galloway, a supervisor in the department's community care licensing division.

The legal limit for a residential day care center is 12 students, and The Extraordinary Place had 25, Galloway said.

"Co-ops like these have to be in a business area," Galloway said. "They also have to have a named, qualified director, keep records on the kids, get medical tests. This one was never licensed with us."

Cooperative founder Ernestine Washington said she was disappointed by the setback, but has come too far and seen too much demand for the school's program to give up.

"I've been living with this concern [of being shut down] for a long time," said the 47-year-old Washington, who started the co-op out of her home in 1986 and was recently honored by UNICEF for her innovative approach to education. "This place was born out of need, and that need is still here."

The school, for children ages 2 to 6, operated on weekdays from about 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., and parents paid an average of $100 a week, Washington said.

According to licensing program manager Sergio Ramirez, parent cooperatives fall under the same category as day-care centers and must obtain day-care licenses to operate. In addition to following day-care guidelines, they must also fulfill requirements of preschools, such as maintaining certain adult-student ratios and keeping medical and other records on children. Ramirez said that in his district--roughly half of Los Angeles County--such parent co-ops account for only about 40 of 1,500 licensed child-care centers.

Washington said she and other parents founded The Extraordinary Place as a nonprofit organization but that, after researching the issue, she decided not to pursue licensing for fear that conforming to county requirements would force her to compromise her vision of child education.

County officials said Washington has started the process to get a day-care license and is taking orientation courses offered by the county.

Now that she is complying with county rules, Washington said she believes she will still be able to provide the kind of program that she has offered for the past nine years.

"I feel this will all work out," she said.

The closing was at least timely: The Extraordinary Place operates on a traditional school calendar year and was ready to dismiss students for the summer after a graduation ceremony today in the West Adams district.

Parents say they will fight to keep The Extraordinary Place going because there are far too few operations like it in the black community. At Washington's establishment, they say, children are not only exposed to science, reading and other academic subjects, they are also ingrained with positive attitudes and self-esteem--crucial elements in ensuring a child's success later in larger, less personal academic settings.

Parental involvement is also crucial: Parents share administrative and other duties and do everything from running grocery errands to storytelling. But the greatest challenge has been keeping the school going, said Mary Lee Wallace, one of the parents working to acquire a larger, more appropriate site for the school.

"We're trying to work something out with DPSS, work within their parameters so we can do an interim thing at least," said Wallace, a Leimert Park resident and attorney whose 4-year-old son has attended The Extraordinary Place for 1 1/2 years. "There's such a great need for day care and education like this, particularly among people of color, that we'll do anything we can to keep it going."

Wallace said she and several other parents have formed a committee and are trying to get a loan and other private funding to purchase a site in the Crenshaw area that would allow expansion of the school to include other grades.

The group of concerned include several whose children have already graduated from the school. "Tina's caring about the kids, how she works with them--there's real discipline there," said Barbara Mosby, a retired kindergarten teacher whose granddaughter is an Extraordinary Place alumna.

Washington downplays her role--she describes the school as "really just a return to the old Southern extended-family traditions of child-rearing"--but is clearly passionate about her work, and particularly about aiding the black community by example.

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