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With little warning, dozens forced from Pacific Oaks preschool

For years, the respected preschool had been operating at over-capacity. When it failed to get state permission to increase capacity, it quickly laid off teachers, cut programs and booted students.

September 08, 2013|By Stephen Ceasar

Parents at Pacific Oaks Children's School, a highly desired private preschool in Pasadena, were caught off guard last week by an announcement made only days before school opened. Their children no longer had seats.

School officials said they learned in May that the leafy, progressive campus had been operating for years over its licensed capacity.

Enrollment last school year reached about 140 children; the school was licensed for 77. Officials applied to the state Department of Social Services to increase the capacity in July but were denied. So school administrators cut programs, laid off teachers and informed the families of 44 students just before Labor Day that they could not return.

Families are scrambling to find other preschools for their children and lament what they say has been a steep fall for the 68-year-old school. Many parents, some of whom attended the school themselves, contend that severe mismanagement has tarnished the prestige of the idyllic campus — a feeder for exclusive private schools in the San Gabriel Valley.

The administration decided to close its two full-time programs and one part-time, after-school session, said Ezat Parnia, president of both Pacific Oaks College and preschool. The college operates the children's school, with many undergraduate, graduate and teaching-credential students volunteering and training there.

Four teachers have been laid off, and two staff positions were eliminated. The teachers were let go based on seniority, Parnia said. The decision to close the full-time program was made in an effort to affect the smallest number of students and teachers, Parnia said.

Parnia maintains that parents were made aware of the application and kept apprised of the process. The school's capacity remains limited to 77 students.

"We were expecting to have this be a routine process," Parnia said, adding that he was given no indication that the application would be rejected.

Jordan Wallens, an investment banker whose 4-year-old son has attended the school for two years, said he grew up in the area and has been familiar with Pacific Oaks' fine reputation. He said he had long ago decided to enroll his children in the school, if he was able.

"It was the greatest thing you could ask for in a school," Wallens said. Teachers were attentive to his son, he said, and having the full-time care was essential, as both he and his wife work.

He said he was told Aug. 30 that his son's spot, for which he paid about $1,500 a month, was eliminated. When he and his wife had asked, Wallens said, school officials repeatedly told them not to bother looking for an alternative school.

"We were told at every turn, do not explore a Plan B," he said. "We were reassured that it would be OK."

After learning his son would not be returning to Pacific Oaks, Wallens began looking at other private preschools.

The Waverly School in Pasadena, a pre-K-to-12th-grade campus, reached out to the family — as it looked into taking students from Pacific Oaks, Wallens said.

They liked what they saw. His son starts Monday.

Not all students who were enrolled in full-time programs are without a spot. Six students, who were in their last year of the program, are being given the opportunity to register in both morning and afternoon part-time sessions, which typically cost $1,280 a month each. Those who do will pay the full-time rate of $1,675 a month, school officials said.

The series of events took the school by surprise, Parnia said.

"I feel horrible about this and don't know how else to explain it," he said. "It was thrown on our lap, and we're doing our best to accommodate."

The Department of Social Services, however, denied the application because of recent safety violations, according to the denial letter sent to the school.

In the letter, the agency said the school failed to provide satisfactory evidence that it could meet licensing requirements by state law.

The department referred to several incidents in recent years in which the school was cited for failing to report an injury of a child, withholding information about the child's injury, and failing to provide proper care and supervision, among other things.

The incidents occurred when Jane Rosenberg was the school's director. She retired at the end of last school year. Rosenberg did not reply to requests for comment.

stephen.ceasar@latimes.com

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