SOURCE: Vista Del Mar Child & Family Services

Vista Del Mar Child & Family Services

June 29, 2011 13:05 ET

Vista Del Mar's Special Class of 2011

For These Graduating Seniors, Vista School Served as an Educational and Emotional Life Preserver

WEST LOS ANGELES, CA--(Marketwire - Jun 29, 2011) - While they weren't large in number -- only about 20 in all -- what this class of graduating high school seniors had accomplished was absolutely huge. That's because, for these teens -- all students at Vista School -- earning their diplomas required much more than merely mastering the three R's. In fact, graduating from high school required overcoming herculean challenges, including unimaginable trauma, severe emotional and behavioral problems, as well as learning disabilities. In a gymnasium packed with proud parents and congratulatory balloons, it was thus with warranted jubilation that these teens accepted their diplomas last Friday and thanked those in attendance for not giving up on them, particularly Vista School.

Operated by Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services, Vista School is a nonpublic, special-education institution that currently serves some 300, K-12 students. Recently designated a "School of Excellence" by the National Association of Special Education Teachers, Vista School is reserved for youngsters with learning disabilities or developmental challenges, as well as those who experience social, emotional, or behavioral problems or other mental-health issues.

Vista School has a long history of stepping up when other institutions essentially gave up. Graduate Shane Phelps, 17, puts it this way: "Vista School actually cared about me and my future." Before becoming a student at Vista School, Shane's future looked anything but bright. While Shane always had struggled at school, that struggle spiraled sharply downward following the death of his dad from a drug overdose. Shane, who was 11 at the time, went on to attend a series of nonpublic schools that he characterizes as "horrible." By seventh grade, he simply refused to go -- a stance he maintained throughout eighth grade as well. Seeing no other solution, Shane's mother placed him in Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services' Residential Treatment Program. At the same time, Shane was enrolled in Vista School.

After living at Vista for a year and receiving intense, therapeutic treatment, Shane's anger and depression subsided significantly and he moved back with his mom in Lakewood, but continued to attend Vista School. When he walked on stage to accept his diploma, Shane bore little resemblance -- physically or emotionally -- to the middle-school dropout he once was. Physically, Shane has shed 120 pounds since first setting foot on Vista's campus. Emotionally, he has evolved into a mature, articulate young man with the steadfast focus to earn straight A's last semester and to embrace newfound insights -- "I now realize how sacred relationships are." While Shane rightly credits himself for "personally deciding to change my life," he also applauds Vista School. "Without Vista, I wouldn't have learned how to connect with other people," he explains. "Because of Vista, I want to help change the world in a positive way."

Without Vista School, students like Shane -- instead of graduating -- could have wound up incarcerated, institutionalized, or a grim statistic. Vista School's Director of Education Donna Baker attributes the school's success -- including the fact that within one year, the majority of students improve two to three grade levels and 95% graduate -- to the seamless melding of education and mental-health services. Another success factor is all Vista teachers are specifically trained in special education and the school features a student-to-teacher ratio of three to one. Additionally, Baker points out, "This is a therapeutic school. Unlike public schools where special-ed students may see a counselor once a week, each of our students has a personal therapist, and we provide individual, group, and family therapy." And Baker speaks from personal experience; two of her adopted children graduated from Vista. "This school," she says, "did things for my children that no one else could or would, and I am eternally indebted."

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