Special Needs in South Pasadena | Unwavering Care and Concern

The Institute for the Redesign of Learning’s mission is to empower individuals of all abilities to take charge of their own learning and lives, making it possible for them to be competent, caring, and contributing members of society.

PHOTO: Provided by IRL | SouthPasadenan.com News | Field Day, a regular feature of the Institute for the Redesign of Learning, was held at the Westmoreland Academy in Pasadena.  Westmoreland Academy students traditionally participate in a Special Olympics Day in Duarte

As life slowly returns to traditional times with pandemic concerns subsiding, students and clients enrolled at the Institute for the Redesign of Learning (IRL) based in South Pasadena are once again a welcome sight.

“They feel like they are back home, back in their routine, and are eager to learn, engage in social interaction, and just feel cared and supported by our staff,” said a smiling Shawn Prokopec, managing director of the Institute, which offers six programs designed to provide care for individuals with special needs. “Our staff members are so happy to see the faces of their clients.”

Prokopec has high hopes that all programs will be fully in-person by the fall and IRL returns to near normalcy for students and clients facing developmental and emotional challenges.

The last year has been difficult, moving a completely in-person education and service-based non-profit agency to providing services virtually,” she added.

Promoting diversity, equity and inclusion, the IRL’s mission has remained the same over its more than four decades – to “empower individuals of all abilities to take charge of their own learning and lives, making it possible for them to be competent, caring, and contributing members of society, and to provide learning opportunities for families, professionals, and communities to support those efforts.”

PHOTO: Provided by IRL | SouthPasadenan.com News | Almansor Academy is held at the former site of Oneonta Elementary School off Fremont Avenue in South Pasadena

Working in partnership with families, students, and other professionals, the non-profit organization’s rich resources include the Almansor Academy, a special education school; Early Child Education, designed for infants to the age of 6; Westmoreland Academy, an Autism Spectrum Disorder campus in Pasadena; Transition and Adult Services, providing personal and vocational skills training to youth and adults; Clinical Services, offering a full array of mental health programs; and Community Outreach, which participates in research grants that impact special education, primarily in early identification and intervention. 

“All learners develop at their own pace and in their own way,” summed up Institute for the Redesign of Learning Founder Nancy J. Lavelle, Ph.D., in an article – Celebrating Individuals with Developmental Disabilities – found on its website explaining IRL’s impact in today’s world. “Taking a first step, smiling for the first time, or waving ‘bye-bye’ are called developmental milestones. Children reach milestones in how they play, learn, speak, behave, and move. When children do not meet average milestones at or near the age they are expected to meet that milestone, we say that they are delayed. It is important to consult your child’s doctor if you have any concerns about your child’s progress in meeting their developmental milestones. After careful monitoring and screening, a child may be identified as ‘developmentally disabled,’ an important step in ensuring that each child receives the educational, medical, rehabilitation, or Regional Center services and support he or she needs.”

Rather than labeling a child or adult as “disabled” at the Institute of Learning, LaVelle insists, “We are all learners (i.e. children, parents, teachers, therapists, etc.). As learners, we are all whole, able and complete just as we are and just as we are not. Our goal is to open possibilities for all learners to reach their full potential. Working in partnership, we empower learners to identify their concerns, and take the steps necessary to handle their concerns from daily living, to community accessibility, to work, job, and life-long learning skills.”

PHOTO: Provided by IRL | SouthPasadenan.com News | The Institute for the Redesign of Learning’s Early Childhood Education program holds an Easter Egg Hunt each year

Transition and Adult Services, much sought after among the Institutes’ program offerings, reopened in May following a 15-month COVID induced closure with about 30% of its clients back in-person, with the remaining 70% receiving online services. Almansor Academy and Westmoreland Academy both reopened in mid-April and have approximately 60% of students back on campus. Prokopec is hopeful those numbers will soon flip with a shift to a majority of students and clients coming back in the classroom. Yet, she praises both students and IRL personnel for showing a tremendous amount of resilience during the pandemic in grasping knowledge by accepting new technology, taking part in enrichment activities, and engaging in opportunities with friends and staff.

“Our staff has grown tremendously in their ability to pivot job responsibilities and provide services to their students and clients via Zoom and the telephone,” she explained.

Many staff, explained Prokopec, shed tears of joy after seeing their students and clients back in their routine, having a sense of normalcy, saying: “Our children, students, and adult clients have also experienced a difficult year of not having the stability of their programs and the staff that work with them daily.”

With a humble beginning, the Almansor Education Center first opened its doors back in 1974 as a mere four students with varied backgrounds entered the walls of a church in Alhambra.

Today, following a name change, the now Institute for the Redesign of Living has become a South Pasadena and Pasadena fixture with its two campuses, serving 3,700 children and adults each year. IRL headquarters are at 625 Fair Oaks Avenue, suite 300, in South Pasadena.

Lavelle, believing all students with disabilities are capable and able of being competent, caring and contributing members of society, from the onset of the organization wanted to create an innovated place of mutual learning with heavy emphasis on building trust and respect.

In 1988, the Institute uprooted from its Alhambra digs and moved to the former Oneonta Elementary School site off Fremont Avenue in South Pasadena, continuing to welcome students with developmental issues. Over the years, an Early Childhood Education program was also created along with Clinical Services and Transition and Adult Services, and continuing to grow, in 2012, IRL established the Westmoreland Academy.

PHOTO: Provided by IRL | SouthPasadenan.com News | Former South Pasadena Mayor Bob Joe took a tour of the Institute for the redesign of Learning in 2019. From left are Raul Martinez, IRL director of operations; Shawn Prokopec, IRL managing director; Transition and Adult Services Director Nita Davis and Joe in front of the organization’s Transition and Adult Services program

“Dr. Lavelle started this school because she believed that traditional education was not meeting the needs of students with special needs,” noted Prokopec, “She wanted to empower individuals of all abilities to take charge of their own learning and lives, making it possible for them to be competent, caring, and contributing members of society; and to provide learning opportunities for families, professionals, and communities to support those efforts.”

While IRL programs work with typically developing children, Prokopec says the majority of children and adults enrolled are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down Syndrome, mild cognitive functioning, severe learning disabilities, and medically fragile, behavioral issues, and/or emotional issues.

Children, students, and clients come from all parts of Los Angeles County, the IRL managing director saying, “We transport approximately 300 students and clients daily, driving approximately 60,000 miles per month. IRL is unique due to the populations that we serve and their needs, the variety of programs we offer (i.e. education, childcare, mental health services, adult services, and supported employment) and we work with children as young as an infant to adults up to 60 years of age. IRL is also unique in our dedication to ensuring that everyone has an opportunity to be part of their own learning and plans for becoming successful. Our goal is for everyone to be competent, caring, and contributing members of society. IRL believes that all individuals want to be successful and that the best opportunity for that is to have them personally involved in their education and the planning for their daily activities, which will lead to achieving their goals. Each individual has their strengths and struggles, and our staff is there to support them in an individualized manner as no two clients are the same.”

The staff at Almansor Academy and Westmoreland Academy include teachers, all holding a college degree and a special education credential, joining teacher associates and aides who assist with the curriculum and along with the students, who are required to have a high school diploma or a college degree. The Institute’s mental health, childhood education, transition and adult services staff all hold advanced degrees or appropriate certification.

PHOTO: Provided by IRL | SouthPasadenan.com News | The Institute for the Redesign of Learning’s Transition and Adult Services program holds an annual Abilities Job Fair at the War Memorial Building in South Pasadena, featuring more than 30 companies looking to hire adults with disabilities

As the managing director of the Institute, Prokopec oversees a staff of 300 at Almansor Academy and Westmoreland Academy, along with the Early Childhood education program, Transition and Adult Services, and Clinical Services, which has mental health clinics in South Pasadena and the city of Commerce and therapists in nearly 200 schools.

“I manage the overall functioning of the non-profit agency,” Prokopec said, “working with each program director to ensure that our programs are providing the appropriate services as required by our contracts with Los Angeles Department of Mental Health, Department of Children and Family Services, Los Angeles Unified School districts, 25 other school districts throughout Los Angeles County, East Los Angeles Regional Center and other regional centers, and Department of Rehabilitation, manage the financial activities of IRL, work with our board of directors to ensure financial stability, developing new contracts for continuous growth of our programs, and fundraising activities.”

She believes every person wants to succeed in life, “that everyone needs to be part of the plan for their success, and we work with each individual and family to create a unique environment, individualized curriculum, support, and enrichment activities to turn student and client learning into successes. We serve approximately 2,800 clients annually throughout Los Angeles County.”

IRL transports approximately 300 students and clients to and from school daily, Prokopec explaining that about 40% of its students need the assistance to help them in the school setting to become successful. “We provide counseling, occupational therapy, physical therapy, language and speech therapy, along with adaptive physical education services in our two schools and in our early education program,” she said.

The Institute’s mental health providers drive to nearly 200 schools per day, providing counseling services. Speaking no less than 10 different languages, IRL staff provide in-home services to children. Prokopec saying: “Our Transition and Adult Services program provides transportation to nearly 75 clients, independent living skills opportunities, along with supported employment services such as vocational assessments, training with Excel, Microsoft, and typing, resume building, and on-the-job training/coaching to adults with disabilities who want to become self-sufficient by obtaining employment.”

With strong skillsets developed by many students and clients who wind up in the workplace, IRL continues to build partnerships with South Pasadena businesses. “We have enjoyed a long history of being a part of the community and we hope that it continues to grow as we build more and more programs to help our students and adults become caring, competent, and contributing members of society,” Prokopec said. “As a team of a committed students/clients, parents and caregivers, professional and support staff, board members and community supporters, we work together in a profound endeavor that has supported the success of thousands of individuals of all abilities throughout the course of over four decades – a mission we look forward to continuing for decades to come.”