School of Hard Knocks

State laws regulating vocational schools have been gutted. Disadvantaged students are paying the price.

Wirth and a few of her colleagues had offered their services free of charge after hearing horror stories about the Chico medical trade school. The school had convinced young people from the poorest neighborhoods in Chico to take out loans for as much as $21,000, promising training on modern, high-tech equipment and a job placement rate of 86 percent. But in reality the school used paper cutouts in lieu of real instruments, and no self-respecting hospital wanted anything to do with a Career West graduate.

When the aspiring surgical assistants failed to find jobs after graduation, it wasn't easy to recover and go on with their lives. Many wound up in jobs at fast food restaurants, and gave up on paying their student loans.

With Wirth's help, they won a class-action lawsuit against Career West, but the school declared bankruptcy as soon as the judge ruled against it in 1997. By that point, the state's Student Aid Commission was attaching liens on the students' tax refunds and garnishing their wages from Burger King. So Wirth, who had thought her work was done, pushed them all to file claims with the Student Recovery Tuition Fund.

Following a class-action lawsuit, Zenzi's reopened at a new location South of Market.
Following a class-action lawsuit, Zenzi's reopened at a new location South of Market.
Following a class-action lawsuit, Zenzi's reopened at a new location South of Market.
Anthony Pidgeon
Following a class-action lawsuit, Zenzi's reopened at a new location South of Market.

But the bureau wouldn't respond to the claims. Soon Wirth says she was leaving messages at the agency weekly, but no one would return her calls. Finally, after months of stonewalling, the bureau's staff agreed to meet with her. "It was Kafka-esque," she says. "We met in this office filled with stacks of paper. And this grumpy, gravelly voiced woman motions around the room, 'You see these piles? Those are all the claims ahead of you in line. So why should we pay yours?'"

Wirth was determined to see her clients paid, so she took the agency to court and won. In March, a San Francisco Superior Court judge ordered the bureau to replenish its fund by collecting fees as high as $16,000 from vocational schools across the state. But that money will only cover the Career West lawsuit. The bureau will undoubtedly have to collect even more fees in the future to pay the long line of remaining students. Wirth says someone should file another lawsuit on behalf of the others. "What other choice do we have?" she says. "This agency would have sat around and done nothing if I hadn't put their feet to the fire. Remember, it has a responsibility to protect these kids, but by not doing anything, it's ruining their lives."

Like any good mother, Gabrielle Snedeker wants something better for her daughter, Kayla. The two live in a cramped, subsidized apartment in Ukiah. Snedeker dreams of buying a house someday, so her daughter can play in the back yard. In the meantime, it would be nice simply to spend more time with Kayla, who's going on 10 years old.

"I'd like to do a lot of things, but until I get over this credit issue, that's not going to happen," she says.

Life became more difficult after Snedeker made the mistake of going to Career West College a few years ago. Snedeker was luckier than her peers. She found a decent job after graduating from Career West, working at a pediatrician's office. But the job didn't pay wages high enough for her to cover her student loans. Like other students from the school, Snedeker defaulted, and ruined her credit, waiting for the state to respond to her tuition recovery claim. "For a single mother, having your wages garnished is hard," she says. "That's one PG&E bill that didn't get paid."

Now the original $2,500 loan has ballooned into a $6,000 debt, and Snedeker still has not seen a cent from the bureau. It's too late to save her credit, anyway, she says, making it very unlikely she'll ever be able to buy a house or a new car.

Worse yet she can't take out any more student loans. Snedeker has applied for a competitive medical program at Santa Rosa Junior College, where she would finally get the training she needs to become a registered nurse. She says she is determined to go, though she doesn't know how she'll pay for it. Most likely she will have to work full time while going to school full time, leaving little time to spend with her daughter. "For a year or so there, I was mad at myself," she says. "I wondered how I could be so stupid to go to this obviously crappy school. But now I don't know who to be angry at. Career West screwed me over, but I think the bureau screwed me over even worse."

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