Dr. Janet Switzer is a groundbreaker in the learning arena

Janet Switze

Psychologist/educator Dr. Janet Switzer and her dog

Psychologist/educator Dr. Janet Switzer is quick to agree with that old adage, and cites her mother as its perfect embodiment. “Education looked good to me when I started at Antioch College, [Yellow Springs, Ohio] but my Mother said I should stick with psychology, so I did what she advised.”

As for graduate work, she went on, “A good friend and mentor suggested I should attend Clark University, [Worcester, Mass.] because of its developmental psychology program—then new in the mental health field. “It grew up as an alternative to the psychoanalytic approach,” she explained.

Already having taken the advice of her mother as an undergraduate and then the counsel of a trusted mentor, Janet Switzer spent from 1956 to 1961 at Clark earning both a master’s degree and a doctorate. “My family financed my undergraduate education, but I had to take care of the rest of it,” she explained, citing an assortment of jobs she held to finance her graduate work, including a year with ATT where she made a total of $3,995. “I can’t ever remember going into a department store during those days. I lived very frugally.”

Granted, the finances were tight, but it was the weather that did her in. “That last year in Worcester was so bad that I was determined to move West.” And move she did in 1965 when she found her first job in Los Angeles as senior supervising psychologist at the Reiss-Davis Child Study Center in Los Angeles.

Early in her career at that Center, she vividly recalled a life-changing experience with one 10-year-old patient. “He came in for a consultation and proceeded to tear the room apart. As part of the psychoanalytic style, of course, I just sat there. I didn’t interrupt his behavior—and I realized this style wasn’t going to work for me.
“That moment led me to begin to trust my judgment…to explore other possibilities and that a positive, cognitive educational approach could be more therapeutic.”

With that attitude to guide her, she found another center within two years that suited her style: The Marianne Frostig Center for Educational Therapy in Los Angeles. “I thought I’d never have to take another job. I was so satisfied there.”

However, she explained, “I was the first Ph.D. Marianne had ever hired, and after a year, I could tell she was jealous. I knew I had to leave, so I began looking around.

“I selected the South Bay after visiting all the school psychologists in the area,” she went on. “They were encouraging, so I opened a storefront operation in Torrance in 1966 with three employees: myself, a teacher from Marianne’s staff, plus a receptionist. I had originally called it The South Bay Center for Educational Therapy, because I was uncomfortable using my own name, but it didn’t take long before the pressure was on to change the name. The Switzer Learning Center was enormously successful from the get-go,” she said. “We grew so fast.”
And why? “What we were doing was revolutionary. We were blending psychology and teaching. These days developmental psychology is the leading point of view, but it wasn’t when I started the Center,” she explained. “I can’t lay claim to being the first—but I was certainly one of the first [to use this modality]”

During her 28 years as executive director of the Center, Dr. Switzer has watched it grow, watched it move three times to accommodate expanding enrollment—its present location in Torrance is at 2202 Amapola Court–and saw a host of youngsters learn how to deal with their learning disabilities.

“Despite the many learning, emotional and behavioral challenges these students face every day, they rarely give up,” said Dr. Rebecca Foo, its present executive director. “Eighty percent of our students with severe learning, social and emotional disabilities either return to public school or graduate.”

In 1988, when Dr. Rebecca Foo joined the Center as Dr. Switzer’s pre-doctoral psychology intern, enrollment stood at 50 with 20 staff members, she said. (The current enrollment stands at 90 students and 57 staff members.)

As the school grew, Dr. Switzer’s reputation spread, and she brought her skills to several agencies involved in special education such as hers. She served as president of the California Association of Private Special Education Schools from 1977-1978 and was legislative chair from 1978 to 1982; was a fellow of the American Orthopsychiatric Association and a member of the advisory board of the American Educational Therapy Association during those years. (As had Dr. Switzer before her, Dr. Foo is currently president of CAPSES, whose membership consists of 175 California schools serving about 8,800 special needs children, which is 1.2% of such children in the state being served at other schools.)

As Dr. Switzer reflected on her motive for retiring in 1994, she said, “I felt as if I’d run out of new ideas, and I prided myself on having new ideas. I also felt I’d found my replacement in Dr. Foo, [who became executive director that year.]

“After I retired, I went on the Board [of Directors], but I lasted for only two meetings,” she said. (Judy Borck, the original teacher who had joined Dr. Switzer when she left the Frostig Center and has been with her all these years, is now a member of the Board.)

Smiling at the thought of her board experience, Dr. Switzer admits, “I intervene a little but not a lot. It’s just not fair [to exert my influence anymore].”

Among an assortment of activities, Dr. Switzer’s years of retirement have been filled with travel. Israel and the Galapagos Islands are still on her list, she said. She also regularly reads “several newspapers daily, plus books and magazines,” and tends an expansive exterior succulent garden whose bounty appears in both hanging baskets and in clusters of clay pots.

A major project since retirement has been the expansion of the Palos Verdes Estates home she bought in 1971. “I think it was the tiniest house in the city at that time,” she said. Over the years, the house has grown as has the eclectic art collection that fills all the interior walls and covers the surfaces of the still-intimate-feeling dwelling whose expansive tiled rear deck overlooks a koy pond below and lush canyon beyond. “I wanted quiet, a country feel when I got home from a busy day.”

On this quiet morning, as the interview concludes, she pauses to ponder her long and productive career. What remain as her most rewarding memories? Dr. Janet Switzer, who will be 79 in June, is very clear about what they are: “I’ve been an effective teacher of teachers and [teacher of] dyslectics,” she said without hesitation. “And I’ve been a good administrator. I’ve also seen the continued success of the Center, and that includes the individual student’s success.”

Some 5,000 students have passed through the doors of the Switzer Learning Center since it opened in 1966. Dr. Janet Switzer, the unconventional psychologist/educator who long ago trusted her instincts—and her Mother— opened them.

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