In 1974, Judy Weber's son, Tobin, was dealing with autism so severe that it would manifest itself as destructive behavior.
"He faced state hospitalization," she said.
At the time, Weber was serving on a committee serving autistic children within the Los Angeles Unified School District. Tobin was living at UCLA, where researchers were using him as a subject for early autism research.
When UCLA was close to completing their research, Weber became frustrated when she found that no school would take Tobin due to the severity of his autism. So she decided to start a school on her own that would accommodate Tobin and three other autistic kids — most of whom needed 24-hour care.
"If I didn't start a program for my son, nobody would," said Weber, 75.
When Weber approached officials at Los Angeles Unified, they made a deal with her. They would provide the money to run her school if Weber provided the staff necessary to run it.
Weber agreed, and began to hire her staff. However, Weber had no training in running a school. So with the help of other parents, Weber opened Tobinworld school in 1977 in a rented house in Van Nuys that provided 24-hour care for its students. Donations from her friends in the Jewish community provided seed money for the school.
"We weren't about to rent a store," Weber said of the first school. "So we rented and we had our offices upstairs."
Weber's next efforts concentrated on paving the way for legislation that would set a fair compensatory rate for 24-hour residential care and educational expenses for mentally disabled students. Weber's efforts took her all the way to then-Gov. Jerry Brown, who agreed to listen to the former housewife plead her case after many months of lobbying.
"I was just a mother knocking on doors," Weber said.
Today, Tobinworld, a five-building complex at 920 E. Broadway, is a day school, with a student population of 300 and a staff of 250. The complex also houses the Brill School of Autism, funded by the county.
The school is supported by 20 school districts that fund each student's education, meaning parents or guardians pay nothing. About 70% of Tobinworld's students come from Los Angeles Unified.
"Tobinworld has really showed me to enjoy my life, because a lot of people have different problems," said student Randy Bretado, 18, of Los Angeles, who participated in Tobinworld's graduation ceremonies Wednesday morning where students received GEDs and culmination diplomas. "I just adjusted to that, and I helped out a lot of people. It showed me to have a lot of patience. It got me on the stage to get me my diploma."
The school receives up to $25,000 a year per student, more if the student requires occupational or speech therapy. About a third of the student population is autistic, with the remaining two-thirds diagnosed with severe behavioral or emotional disorders.
"I keep the big goal in mind," Assistant Principal Chris Lougheed said of his teaching method. "I look at the big, long-term picture. I just do it in tiny little chunks."
The school also provides one-on-one care for students with severe behavioral issues, where a caretaker is assigned to supervise the student throughout the day.
Tobinworld also has a campus in Antioch in Northern California, which has 90 students and 45 staff members. Tobinworld 2, as it is called, is funded by 14 local school districts.
"When I was at my other high school, I didn't think I would ever graduate," said graduate Yetunde Adeniyi, 20, of Lincoln Heights. "Before Tobinworld, I wasn't a really good person. I would do bad things. When I came here, I became more assertive and more kind to people. I learned that life is not a joke; I realized what life is all about."
Tobinworld alumna Ciekala Henry, 22, of Los Angeles, attended the graduation to reunite with her former teachers and classmates. A student at ICDC College in Hollywood, she hopes to become a pharmacy technician.
"They showed me shortcuts to help me with a lot problems that I was having, a lot of learning skills," she said.