LOCAL L.A. Now

Students outraged by sudden closure of vocational school

Dozens of students gathered outside a South Los Angeles trade school Thursday, angry that the college where they had been taking classes -- and had paid thousands of dollars to attend -- had shut without notice.

Authorities confirmed that accreditation and eligibility to provide federal financial aid had been withdrawn from Career Colleges of America amid ongoing financial problems.

The school, opened in 1988, provides training in medical fields to about 800 students at campuses in South Gate, Los Angeles and San Bernardino.

"We were informed this afternoon that the school lost accreditation, and when that happens we have to terminate student aid eligibility," said Chris Greene, a spokesman for the U.S Department of Education.

In August, the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education & Training had placed the school on "show cause" status -- a step before revoking accreditation -- over budgeting and other fiscal issues. The accrediting panel was notified that the school had closed as of Wednesday, executive director William Larkin said.

College administrators did not return calls seeking comment. 

The college reportedly closed Wednesday without explanation, and without advising students what would happen with their courses.

Groups of angry students milled about outside the low-slung building, some shouting and holding bright neon signs while passing motorists honked in support.

Students say they first heard their classes might be in danger on Monday, when a number of teachers at the school walked out, saying the school hadn’t paid them in months.

Yesterday, students and teachers -- some in the middle of lectures -- were told to leave the building.

Anthony Romo, 34, teaches alcohol and drug counseling classes and has worked full time for nearly three years. Romo said he hasn’t been paid since November, forcing him to pick and choose which bills to pay on a meager income from two other part-time jobs.

Not wanting to abandon his students, he said he continued to teach until Wednesday afternoon, when an administrator came into his classroom and told everyone to leave.

“I feel defrauded. These are hours that I’ve worked already,” he said, surrounded by students who were holding cardboard signs demanding answers from school leaders.

Alexus Pugh, an 18-year-old student who was hoping to become a medical assistant, said she feels cheated, too.

A single mother and high school dropout, she saw the school as a shot at a better life for her 1-year-old son.

A television commercial promised she could earn her high school equivalency and begin a career as a medical assistant within six months, she said. So she quit her job assisting as a home-care worker and took out loans to pay more than $17,000 in tuition.

She was only a month from starting her externship in the field when the school shut down this week. Now, she doesn’t know what she’ll do.

“I feel hurt. I feel betrayed," she said. "I dedicated my time, my energy and my money to this. I did my part. They were supposed to do theirs.”

School administrators did not return calls seeking comment, and a reporter who sought to speak with staff inside the South Gate campus was told to leave.

The California Bureau of Private Postsecondary Education had sent staff members to the three campuses Thursday to advise students on how to recover federal financial aid loans and other tuition should the school close permanently.

The U.S. Department of Education had been monitoring the financial status of the school and working with state officials to resolve other concerns, said Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for the California Department of Consumer Affairs, which oversees the postsecondary agency.

Officials have also been trying to find other private schools to help Career College students finish their studies, so far unsuccessfully.

“Transferring is always problematic because it’s up to other schools as to whether they are going to take the transcripts,” Heimerich said.

One student reported that officials asked her to pay her tuition as late as this week, as rumors swirled that the school could close.

Monserat Cisneros said she and her two sisters have been saving for college for years. All three decided to attend Career Colleges of America -- she studied drug and alcohol counseling, while her sisters pursued careers in medical billing and dental assisting.

But after several teachers walked out Monday, she was called into the financial aid office.

“I asked them if I needed to pay,” Cisneros said. “They said business is continuing as usual, so yes.”

Twitter: @cmaiduc @CarlaRiveralat

christine.maiduc@latimes.com

carla.rivera@latimes.com

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