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Graduation Acknowledges Special Efforts

Times Staff Writer

Walking the 10 yards from his seat to the podium where he was about to address his fellow 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.

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“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.

“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.”

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

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The slightest signs of progress from students can take years. It took one teen-age 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,” physical education teacher Wayne Oberparleiter said. “I’ve just gotten used to telling students something over and over and over.”

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.

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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.”


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