Scott and Maggie Jurgensen can recall the exact moment they realized that their daughter, Isabella, was in love with her new school, Pasadena’s Westmoreland Academy, owned by the Institute for the Redesign of Learning nonprofit organization.
After years of struggling in the classroom at a series of schools that were unable to meet her unique needs, Isabella — who has autism spectrum disorder — had finally hit her stride at Westmoreland. Although Isabella is nonverbal, her parents knew the signs of how she feels right away.
“She would just run to the bus for school, I mean run,” said Scott Jurgensen, chuckling at the memory. “That’s how we knew she was excited and happy to go. She used to really dislike school — that was pretty obvious. The other schools just weren’t the right environment for Bella, but at Westmoreland, they adapt to each kid’s needs with love and attention to detail.”
Nearly six years later, Isabella, 17, has flourished in ways her parents weren’t sure she could. She has built stronger motor skills and stamina, and most important, found a communication method that works for her.
“Westmoreland staff are very innovative and willing to try new things. They tried a lot of different methodologies until they found what works best for Bella — the level of commitment to the students is really top notch,” said Maggie Jurgensen, adding that the staff even made a desk that was tailored to Bella’s needs and was especially helpful to her method of communication. “The staff are amazing and the whole school functions very cohesively; the routine and patience for Bella has been critical.”
Westmoreland Academy, a nonpublic school, is a relatively new addition to Pasadena’s array of educational institutions, opening in 2013 after the Institute for the Redesign of Learning bought two buildings at 5 and 6 Westmoreland Place from Pacific Oaks College. Nestled next door to the historic Gamble House, the two buildings were said to have been owned at one time by two sisters who were related to the family that ran Pillsbury Flour Mills in Minneapolis.
The stately buildings, connected by an arching walkway, have become home to about 100 students and 80-plus staff members. The site, through IRL, is dedicated to providing individualized education programs to students with autism spectrum disorders and dual diagnoses. Citing the belief that “extraordinary students deserve an extraordinary program,” the school offers specialized curriculum that meets the specific needs of students who learn in a multitude of ways, and a well-trained, empathetic, passionate staff that supports the students in recognizing that they are “Whole, Able and Complete.”
IRL, which also has a nonpublic school in South Pasadena, has been known as a leader in special education, mental health and transition and adult services in Southern California since 1974. The nonprofit each year serves 3,700 individuals with developmental, learning and emotional disabilities and autism spectrum disorders, throughout Greater Los Angeles and San Gabriel Valley communities.
Sitting down to discuss the school’s advances in just seven years, Westmoreland Education Director Nicholas Pinto counted off the recent successes of students, many of whom were recommended to the school after their needs went unmet elsewhere. Some of the children have been labeled as having problematic behaviors or violent tendencies. About 40% are considered to be nonverbal.
Then they encounter Westmoreland’s dedication to communication: “We consider this Step 1 — give them a voice,” Pinto said. “We are constantly working on it, and trying to get them to communicate. There are students who’ve been written off for years because they don’t have a communications system in place, and of course, if you can’t communicate your wants and needs you’re going to act out. Even people who CAN communicate their wants and needs can act up.
“Our goal is to provide our students with a nurturing and effective education using the most current, scientifically proven and evidence-based curriculum and interventions available.”
Some of the kids that come to the academy have developed certain behaviors from not being properly diagnosed or having an individualized education program, or IEP, that has goals that are unrealistically high or low in relation to the students’ abilities, Pinto noted. One of the first things the Westmoreland staff does is reevaluate the IEP, which it sees as a continuous process.
He shared a few recent examples in which reevaluation had a significant effect.
One 2nd-grader came to Westmoreland after her public school said it could no longer manage her behavior problems. Although she’s nonverbal, Pinto said, staff soon discovered that she could read at an 8th-grade level and decode at a 12th-grade level.
“Well, if you’re giving 2nd-grade work to a child who can do work at 8th-grade and 12th-grade levels, of course you’re going to have behaviors,” he said. “But here, we are able to look at the IEP and make those adjustments.”
Another student, a young adult, came to Westmoreland with an IEP goal to count to 10. After one week, the academy staff determined that he was actually able to do some algebraic equations. “That to me is sad — in one week he’s gone from counting to 10 to doing algebra? Imagine what he could have achieved with the proper early intervention,” Pinto said.
He has many other examples: Another student thought to be nonverbal came to the academy working on simple life skills, and learning basic shapes. But once she was taught how to use the supportive communication devices on an IPad, she wrote her teacher a letter that said she understood history and algebra and would like more grounding in academics.
“She wrote one of the most eloquent letters I have ever seen to her teacher — I almost bawled when I read it. She said thank you to her teacher for everything she’d been helping her with, but that the work she was doing was way too easy for her,” Pinto said, adding that after trying a new academic track, the girl was able to obtain a scholarship to a nearby private school.
Pinto paused, regretting he couldn’t share more stories. There are so many, he noted.
IRL Managing Director Shawn Prokopec seconded his enthusiasm: “We have seen remarkable changes in our students across all of our programs, including at our other school. We really are doing things differently — we’re drawing on all of our programs, like mental health, adaptable physical education, occupation therapy and speech and language programs, as well as sensory input to treat the whole child.”
That research-based sensory input program recently caught the attention of the Pasadena Community Foundation, which granted Westmoreland $14,085 to build a brand-new sensory room with different forms of sensory devices, like weighted blankets, various squeeze items, visual and auditory integration devices and a full-body roller contraption. Building a “sensory diet” for students helps supplement their specific emotional and academic learning needs. The sensory room is nearly finished, she added, and the staff and students can’t wait to try it out.
When the PCF was presented with the request for the grant, President and CEO Jennifer DeVoll recalled learning about some of the cutting-edge work Westmoreland is doing with its students.
“When we visited Westmoreland Academy we were very impressed with the school’s philosophy, its dedicated leaders, and the knowledgeable and compassionate staff,” DeVoll said. “We found that Westmoreland provides the unique, individualized resources that students with autism spectrum challenges need to access the benefits of the school’s curriculum, therapies and social-emotional learning tools, having a profound impact on families here in Pasadena and across the Los Angeles area.”
For local parent Thomas Lenz, knowing that his 15-year-old son Colin — who has attended Westmoreland for more than three years — is being cared for and educated has provided a great sense of relief. Colin, who is considered nonverbal, has made great strides at the school and is working to improve his communication on the iPad.
Above all, Colin is happy, Lenz noted, and that is the best thing a parent can ask for.
“It’s been a great place for Colin and for our family. We’ve taken great comfort that they care for him and know him, to know that he’s recognized and appreciated and can be himself with no stigma, well, it’s huge,” Lenz said. “With all the challenges we deal with, this knowledge makes it a lot easier, it’s really one of the best things that we can ask for.”
To learn more about Westmoreland Academy, and how to donate or volunteer time, visit the Institute for the Redesign of Learning nonprofit’s website at redesignlearning.org/westmoreland.