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Cuts To Sweetwater Learning Centers Could Be A Crushing Blow To At-Risk Students

Mitchie Ramos-Hagle and her mother Lorena Hagle stand outside their home in C...

Photo by Joe Hong

Above: Mitchie Ramos-Hagle and her mother Lorena Hagle stand outside their home in Chula Vista. March 4, 2020

It was close to midnight when 18-year-old Mitchie Ramos-Hagle finally got to speak at the Sweetwater Union High School Board’s February meeting.

The meeting was packed with hundreds of angry teachers and parents when it started. But by the end, Ramos-Hagle sat in a nearly empty auditorium crying into her mother’s shoulder.

In a 3-2 vote, the board had just approved a series of draconian cuts to close a $30-million budget hole. Included was a proposal to layoff 237 teachers, librarians and other staff members and the shuttering of the district’s learning centers.

The centers allow students like Ramon-Hagle to learn at their own pace and recover the credits they need to graduate. Students, teachers and families say the move could hurt the district’s most at-risk students who do not fit in a traditional classroom.

“Honestly, I love school, but I could not stay awake,” Ramos-Hagle said. “With the depression and everything, I would go to the bathrooms, and I would cry, and I was self-harming, and I got dizzy very often.”

Ramos-Hagle also has fibromyalgia and multiple learning disorders. She has several doctors appointments each week, so she’s unable to attend school during normal hours.

“They think of me as oh you just have this, but no, it’s everything together,” she said.

The district launched the learning centers in 1985 as a safety net for students at-risk of dropping out. Today, they are housed in 13 high schools and serve more than 1,300 students.

For Ramos-Hagle and her family, the learning centers were a last resort after they tried a variety of different alternative education programs.

“It was a journey, really. A very very tough journey,” said Lorena Ramos, Ramos-Hagle’s mother. “After all those years, the learning centers were a blessing for us.”

The district has provided few details on its plans for transitioning learning center students into different programs.

District spokesman Manny Rubio said officials are still designing a plan. According to the California Department of Education, school district’s aren’t required by law to provide alternative education programs. But most districts have them and they range from independent study, home and hospital instruction for students with disabilities to continuation schools where students can recover credits.

In the weeks since the cuts were approved, the district has proposed moving learning center students into independent study. But learning center teachers say their program provides a unique service to its students.

“It goes back to the word hope. I can’t tell you how many kids come in here and they’ve lost hope,” said Russ Moore, a learning center teacher at Sweetwater Union High School. “They thought hey, I’m 22 credits behind, I’m never gonna graduate, I don’t know what I’m gonna do.

According to data provided by Moore, learning centers currently serve more than three times as many students as independent study. And the student-teacher ratios are higher in learning centers, making them the district’s most cost-effective alternative education program, Moore said.

Ramos-Hagle only started at the learning center after being unsuccessful in independent study.

“It did not work. It’s very vague. The instructions are like no instructions at all,” she said. “You go and see the teacher and you turn in the work and supposedly ask questions, and they don’t know any of it.”

Alexandra Libsack, a student at Sweetwater High’s learning center said the news of the proposed cuts might derail her college plans.

“My academic life has been all over the place since elementary school,” Libsack said.

Libsack struggled with depression and anxiety for most of her life. She was set to graduate in October, something she never could’ve imagined just a few years ago. She had plans to attend community college and transfer to a university. Ultimately, she wanted to get a PhD in clinical and forensic psychology.

But while the district decides how to serve the learning center students if the program shutters, students like Libsack and Ramos-Hagle remain in limbo.

“You know I’m gonna have to go to like Job Corps, or adult school,” said Libsack. “ I don’t want to do that.”

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