By Haley Sawyer
Educator Erik Quillen was at an impasse with a student who was absorbed with a computer game while his classmates were sitting diligently at their desks.
“He was ignoring all of the adults,” Quillen recalled, “and then when the adults would push it, then he would get upset and throw something or hit one of the kids.”
At Almansor Academy — whose students’ learning disabilities, emotional disturbances and other difficulties often are compounded by other imposing disadvantages — the situation wasn’t unusual, but it was a challenge. Quillen asked the 11-year-old where he should be at that moment, and waited a whole minute until the boy replied “At my desk.”
Quillen, the director of education at Almansor, was startled by the lag in the boy’s reply, but it soon was explained that the child has a delay in auditory speech processing, meaning each word must be processed individually before developing a response. When not given the appropriate amount of time for that, frustration ensues.
The moment, which occurred before the COVID-19 pandemic forced a switch to distance learning, illustrated the hurdles faced by students and teachers alike at Almansor. The school, which is located in South Pasadena and is part of the Institute for the Redesign of Learning, hosts 135 to 155 students each academic year from up to 18 school districts throughout Greater Los Angeles. The school is equipped with specialists to work with students dealing with challenges ranging from autism spectrum disorders to aggressive or violent defiance. The program addresses the needs of individuals from kindergarten to age 22.
There are three elementary rooms, two middle school rooms and up to five high school diploma-bound rooms in addition to rooms dedicated to functional life skills development. Classes have up to 12 students — usually boys — and there are a teacher and associate teacher in each classroom. Whether the instruction is online or on campus, Almansor’s goal is to prepare its students to return to a public education and teach them functional life skills. About six students have made a return to their school district this year.
Gains don’t come easily.
“You name the negative behavior and it’s happening on a daily basis, we take those students that are like one out of like 100, and we’re putting 12 of them in a room together,” Quillen said. “Like, this is going to be a bit of an adventure.”
Many Almansor teachers have to unlearn conventional ways of working with students, and reach new levels of understanding, patience and empathy.
“We had a student … he was a thorn in my side,” said teacher Marisela Fappiano. “He was the one [to whom] I didn’t have a name. It was always, ‘[Expletive] you, [expletive].” Fappiano got through the year and dealt with the insults every day.
Years later, she experienced a reward. The same student was in her class once again. On the first day, he entered the room and apologized to Fappiano for his harsh treatment of her.
“And that made everything worthwhile,” Fappiano said. “And it’s a lot of stuff that we go through, but it’s not even like the tip of the iceberg with some of what they’ve gone through. They’re like little people with big people problems.”
Twenty percent of students are in foster care or come from the probation system. Roughly 85% of the campus is food impoverished. Amid distance learning, meals are delivered to students.
When on campus, meals are provided, birthdays and holidays are celebrated, and students are given support that they might not receive at a public school. Teachers keep cereal on hand in case a student arrives hungry to class. Students are valued, a feeling that some might not have experienced before.
“They all need special attention,” said associate teacher Margarita Aguirre, who has worked alongside Fappiano for four years. “And they all want to connect with you differently. That’s what it is they want, to connect. You know? They just want attention.”
The belief at Almansor is that every child wants to succeed. This philosophy allows for linguistic coaching, a technique that offers choices instead of dictating what the student should do or asking for an explanation of behavior rather than assigning emotions to the observed behavior. Problems are discussed instead of avoided.
Faculty at the school assumes that students want to learn. Meetings about the student include parents, therapists, social workers and, of course, the student.
“It’s sort of like putting them back in charge of their education,” said Colleen Turkal, associate director of campus support, “rather than it’s the adults always being in charge — like, you’re going to go to the school and you’re going to do this and you’re going to sit here and you’re going to learn this. Our students tend to do a lot better when they feel like they have control over it.”
The COVID-19 pandemic, bringing the need for remote instruction, has presented a whole new set of challenges for Almansor, whose students often require emotional support best achieved in person.
However, in March, within a week of being told of transitioning to distance learning, teachers worked together to create a curriculum tailored to their students’ needs. Work packets, and sometimes surprises like a recorder flute, are sent to students’ homes. Plutarco “Joe” Garcia, who has been working at Almansor for 30 years, developed a music curriculum for his elementary classroom inspired by his own love of playing the flute.
“You get to do a lot of one-on-one stuff, which is nice,” Garcia said. “I get to teach music, which is a passion of mine. Most of the time they really like it. So that’s good, and they work hard at it.”
Said Quillen: “We’re doing distance learning, and then we customize the distance learning to what works best for that learner. And so there are some who really thrive on Zoom. And there are some … that kind of thing hasn’t really worked, so they’ll get personalized phone calls from one of the educators in the room to help walk them through their work.”
The students seem as eager to return to campus as their counterparts in other schools.
“So nowadays you see them at their own space and it’s hard, because they’ll ask you, ‘When are we going back? When can we go back? When is it going to end?’” said Maggie Camacho, an associate teacher of 30 years.
As districts develop plans to reopen campuses and COVID-19 restrictions begin to ease, Almansor Academy hopes to have students back for in-person learning in February.
“The last 10 months have been very difficult, but out of it rose this whole other side of your teachers that they would have never ever tapped into,” said Shawn Prokopec, managing director at IRL.
Steps are taken toward that goal each time a student chooses to sit at their desk with their classmates rather than sit defiantly in front of a computer. It’s a rewarding experience for the student, and for the teachers as well.
“Do you have the ganas? The want? I’m sure that a lot of people think ‘I don’t know,’” said Camacho. “They give me a lot of motivation. You can’t stop caring for them. You cannot stop doing things for them.”