Quaker-Based School Hopeful of Recovering After Changes, Tumult
A year after protests by teachers, parents and students rocked Pacific Oaks College and Children’s School in Pasadena, survivors say the venerable Quaker institution is expected to recover from its worst crisis but may never be the same.
About half of the school’s 22 teachers and administrators have been replaced after some were fired, and others left in protest over the firings. At least a dozen families have put their children in other schools.
Pacific Oaks still must cope with a $150,000 deficit caused by faculty raises and with a lawsuit filed by a 15-year teacher who claims that she was wrongfully terminated. It also faces a review in April by the Accrediting Commission of the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges, which criticized it in 1985.
But Katherine Gabel, who has been at the center of controversy since she was hired as president in 1985, said: “I’m feeling pretty hopeful. We’ve definitely come around the corner.”
In response to the poor accreditation report, the school’s board of trustees hired Gabel to improve Pacific Oaks’ academic standing. Because the board made its choice without following the Quaker practice of reaching decisions through consensus, some teachers and students became upset.
They became even more angry when Gabel fired some teachers and deans and filled several positions with people she chose without traditional participation by the staff, students and parents. The school was also facing mounting debts because of inadequate financial management, and teachers’ salaries were extremely low, the accreditation report concluded.
Gabel said the school’s philosophy has remained the same, “deeply ingrained in the roots of Quaker tradition of peace, anti-bias and human development. But in management--that’s where we are hopefully seeing some changes.”
There are those, however, who say the changes have come at too high a price.
George Hedges resigned from the Pacific Oaks board of trustees and put his children in another school, calling the firings “the midnight massacre.”
“I hope Pacific Oaks ultimately survives, but we could not be supportive of an institution that did things this way,” Hedges said.
Founded as a preschool in 1945 by seven Quaker families who were conscientious objectors during World War II, Pacific Oaks has grown to include the first three grades of primary school and a small college that has a national reputation for teaching courses in innovative early childhood education.
Critics say that, in the tumult that erupted last year, Pacific Oaks lost its Quaker principles of valuing individual worth, social justice and resolving conflicts through consensus.
But others say that Pacific Oaks now has the strong leadership it needs after years of floundering without clear direction, and that it is getting almost $1 million in grants from several foundations to bolster its $2-million annual budget.
Olin Barrett, chairman of the board of trustees, assessed Pacific Oaks as “still highly imperfect” but added: “There is progress. . . . and the outlook is a little more upbeat.”
Gabel said the school is “a Quaker-based institution, not a Quaker institution. Most of the programs are running beautifully.”
Hundreds of Pasadena-area children have attended the children’s school in a group of Craftsman-style bungalows on California Boulevard near Arroyo Seco. For many years, Pacific Oaks has had an enrollment of about 200 children and long waiting lists for some of its classes. Instead of following traditional disciplines, children are encouraged to learn through play and by figuring things out for themselves.
The school’s parent education classes expanded to become the college, which was accredited in 1959. It occupies two buildings on Westmoreland Place, next to Pasadena’s famed Gamble House. Most college students work with classes at the children’s school a few blocks away.
Gabel was hired in 1985, partly in response to the accreditation report, which said the school must make “profound changes in attitude and process in order to seek resolutions” to financial, personnel and academic problems.
“The college’s expectations of a new president are overwhelming,” the report said.
The accreditation report criticized Pacific Oaks for its “lack of academic rigor,” low teacher salaries, financial instability, absence of long-range planning and “inbreeding,” which it said was the result of more than half of the faculty receiving degrees from Pacific Oaks.
Gabel said she followed the trustees’ directive to strengthen the school when she fired some long-term faculty and administrators and replaced them with people of her choice. The firings began in 1986 and continued until March, 1987.
Charges of “un-Quakerish” procedures flew as employees resigned, families withdrew their children and parents staged demonstrations.
Bunny Rabiroff, a teacher for 15 years, has filed suit against the school, claiming that she was wrongfully fired when she was given notice of dismissal on the eve of a sabbatical last spring.
Rabiroff said the suit challenges Pacific Oaks’ claim that she was terminated last March because of the school’s financial difficulties and because she was the faculty member “with the lowest productivity.”
Gabel said that a financial audit confirmed that there is a deficit and that Pacific Oaks was within its rights to not renew Rabiroff’s contract.
Mae Varon, a popular teacher who resigned in protest over Rabiroff’s firing, now teaches at Pacific Ackworth Preschool in Temple City, where she has attracted several families that defected from Pacific Oaks.
“I feel I’m in a place now where I can teach respect and caring about one another,” Varon said. “I didn’t think I could stay in a place where unfair values were going on, where there was an aura of intimidation.”
Elaine Gee Wong, who for six years drove her four children from Monterey Park so they could attend Pacific Oaks, said she is taking her youngest two children to another Pasadena preschool because “we were not getting what we were paying for. The whole school is changing--it’s going into normal stuff.”
But Wong said the primary grades at Pacific Oaks continue to provide the best education.
“Nothing rates even a close second to that school,” she said.
Karen Fischer, who said she is contemplating withdrawing her child from Pacific Oaks, said the preschool is “understaffed, disorganized and over-enrolled. I think the school is still kind of reeling from its rapid transition.”
Gabel said: “There are many, many people who are strongly with us, and for those who are not, it’s appropriate for them to stick with their decision. They should not try to stick it out and be miserable.”
Betty Jones, a teacher at Pacific Oaks since 1954 who remained on the staff despite her objections to last year’s disputes, said she has high hopes for Pacific Oaks.
The exodus of employees and students has ended, she said.
“There’s a real dynamic tension now,” Jones said. “We struggle, and that may be good for us. We have to get the place in better order, and I’m feeling hopeful.”
Ralph Wolff, associate director of the accreditation commission, said this week that a team will make an interim visit to Pacific Oaks at the end of April for an assessment that will be given to the commission in June.
Wolff said Pacific Oaks’ accreditation is not in jeopardy, but added that “past concerns will be addressed, as well as new issues.”
Recently, Pacific Oaks sought a study by Executive Service Corps, a group of retired executives who volunteer their expertise. Its report called for controlling Pacific Oaks’ “financial chaos,” increasing college enrollment, improving salaries, “slowing the rate of internal change,” and making changes “with skill and sensitivity.”
Gabel said that, since her arrival she has increased salaries--a move that created the deficit--and has been able to get some large grants that will provide computers throughout the schools.
She said the school has strengthened its academic program by eliminating college courses in gerontology and women’s studies and by opening a “Weekend College,” whereby part-time students will be able to earn degrees through classes that will be given on Saturdays and Sundays.
Laila Aaen, dean of the college, said enrollment has increased from 250 to about 300. Some of the new students come for degrees in a marriage, family and child counseling program that has a new emphasis on children, and some come for a new program in bicultural development, Aaen said.
“This year feels very good,” Barrett said, noting that Pacific Oaks has received almost $1 million in grants that Gabel sought.
However, Pacific Oaks still has the $150,000 deficit, which is not covered by any of the grants. Barrett said the school hopes to have more fund-raising events similar to one that brought in $50,000 last year.
Gabel, he said, “has carried out the board’s mandate. We remain very enthusiastically behind her.”
Mae Cowan, director of teacher education and credential programs, who was a severe critic of Gabel’s and other administrators’ actions last year, said: “I didn’t have a quarrel with what they did--it was how they did it.”
Now, Cowan said, “I think Pacific Oaks will survive. I don’t think it will ever be exactly the way it was, and I’m not sure that’s wanted. We did need tighter organization, more structure.
“I don’t think it’s all turned around yet, but the institution has been saved. It’s going to survive.”