Grads Who Major in Minor Miracles : Special Students in San Pedro Awarded High-Grade Hugs

Times Staff Writer

Walking the 10 yards from his seat to the podium, where he was about to address his fellow graduating students at Ernest P. Willenberg Special Education Center in San Pedro, James Holderbaum stopped to gaze at the crowd and then became unsure of which direction to go.

After a little prompting from his teachers, the 22-year-old arrived at the microphone. Speaking slowly and deliberately, he read from his prepared speech:

“I have been a stu-dent here for el-ev-en years and I have learned to read, and learned to write, and cook, and . . . and . . . and sew. I will miss you all. All my friends,” he said.


The applause from the students, their parents and the Willenberg staff, including cafeteria workers and janitors, was so loud and long that Holderbaum smiled broadly and hugged a nearby teacher, sparking another round of hearty applause. When the cheering finally stopped, several people were in tears.

Positive Environment

“That’s what (Willenberg) is all about,” Principal Beverly LoPorto said. “It is not a place where we feel sorry for our students and treat them as someone to be pitied. It’s about giving them the right to feel good about themselves, putting them in a positive environment, and rewarding them when they reach, or even attempt, a goal. That’s what we all deserve.”

Willenberg, and the 17 other schools like it in the Los Angeles Unified School District, serve mentally and physically handicapped students age 3 to 22 who are unable to keep up with special education programs in mainstream schools. One other special education school is in the South Bay: C. Morley Cellery in Gardena.

“The type of students at Willenberg are typical of the kind of students at any of the district’s special education centers,” said Phillip Callison, assistant superintendent for special education, “and the (faculty) at Willenberg is a fair example of all of our faculty in the centers.”

Foster Homes

A third of Willenberg’s 387 students were put in foster homes at an early age because their parents couldn’t deal with what LoPorto calls their “challenges.”

The slightest signs of progress from students can take years. It took one teen-aged student a year to learn how to dress himself and another five years to use a cup and spoon. The best and brightest here can barely read or write.

“I guess most of the teachers here do have a special talent for patience and looking at the bright side of things,” saids physical education teacher Wayne Oberparleiter. “I’ve just gotten used to telling students something over and over and over.”

Oberparleiter and his assistant, Paula Hardy, just spent six months teaching a student how to dry himself. “We literally showed him how to use a towel five days a week for six months. He would smile and say yes, he understood, and then we would give him the towel, and he would just hand it right back to us.

“And that day when he finally took that towel. Wow! I felt like it was the greatest achievement he ever made. And you know, it just could be,” Oberparleiter said. “I think every teacher or teaching assistant here can tell you a story like that.”

Coping With Death

And many can tell of watching a frail student deteriorate slowly into death. Three students died during the school year that ended last week.

LoPorto said the death of a student is taken very hard by staff members.

“We cry, and we mourn with our students,” she said, “but we continue with our jobs. A big part of our jobs is creating a positive and joyous atmosphere.”

Like all of the special education centers, Willenberg is three schools in one. One is for students of elementary school age; another for those of high school age and older, up to 22. The third, called the Developmentally Handicapped Unit at Willenberg, is reserved for the profoundly retarded and physically disabled.

The nine rooms in that unit resemble medical clinics more than classrooms. Rows of wheelchairs line the walls, and a water bed is placed in every room for students who are unable to sit up.

The other two sections look like standard classrooms, although all of Willenberg’s rooms are equipped with a phone for emergencies.

“All three schools teach students with different levels of capabilities, of course,” LoPorto said. “But the goal for all three is the same. That is, to teach them skills that make them as socially acceptable as possible. Even if that means taking years to learn how to bathe, or be able to buy things on a shopping list, that is quite an accomplishment.”

Others succeed beyond that level and are able to hold low-skill jobs. For example, most of the 17 students who have reached 22 this year will go on to state-run workshops where they will perform simple tasks such as sorting nuts and bolts or stuffing envelopes for a small hourly wage.

But Alberto Barrera is jumping into the true mainstream. The shy young man got a full-time job as a cook at the fast-food restaurant where he has worked part-time for the past year.

At last week’s graduation ceremony, Barrera was singled out for three honors. He received two recognition awards, one from the Masonic lodge and another from the Elks Club, and a teacher read aloud a letter from Barrera’s employer, describing the graduate as “the most knowledgeable employee I have.”

The crowd applauded enthusiastically, while Barrera broke into a sheepish grin.

Later, his mother, Maria DeJesus Estrada, recalled that someone recently told her that she should be proud of her retarded son.

“They didn’t understand,” she said. “I think of him as a good son and not as a retarded son.”