Little to show for state-funded 'school of broken dreams'

Millions of dollars and six years later, the state has very little to show for a privately-owned vocational school set up to train injured workers for new careers.

Instead, unhappy workers say they're left with no training, no payments from the state and no jobs.

When an injury caused Yadira Avila to lose her job at Woodinville's Cuzina Foods, the state paid $12,000 tuition to enroll her at the Computer Institute, which teachers computer repair, electronic assembly and secretarial work.

Critics say the school has done a lousy job, but has still taken in an estimated $2 million in state tuition money.

And to make things worse, as soon as students get a diploma, the state cuts them off from short-term disability payments. The state saves millions and the school makes millions, but Avila and others say they're left with no training and no state payments.

Avila lost most of her right arm in an on-the-job accident, yet the Computer Institute said it would maker her an office assistant and gladly accepted her $12,000 tuition upfront in taxpayer money.

"I tried to get a job but, when the people see me, well, (they think) 'You don't have one hand.' And nobody gives me a job," Avila said.

The KOMO Problem Solvers obtained hidden camera video from a person posing as a prospective student at the school. She said several students told her the training is useless.

"When I come across this gentleman with the board, he tells me he doesn't know what he's doing, that I really shouldn't be there," the undercover prospective student said.

Other former students agree. KOMO surveyed other privately owned schools that claim about 90 percent of graduates find jobs. Owners at the Computer Institute, funded almost solely by tax dollars, concede their rate is just 50 percent.

Critics allege it's actually far lower.

Owner Luis Orna said his students are the tough cases.

"These students are coming here with a lot of issues" Orna said. "Like emotional issues, like financial issues, like psychological issues. It's hard to train these kinds of people. So we are trying our best to do that."

Brenda Cuellar is a former Computer Institute student who now works as a manager at the school.

"If I made it, you guys can make it, too," she said.

The Computer Institute claims it has had 232 students, and school officials sent KOMO a list of 28 names they say got jobs after graduation.

Vickie Kennedy from the state Department of Labor and Industries said she's not sure the school is the best use of the state's money.

"Well, I think that's exactly the kind of information we want so we can take a closer look," she said.

Kennedy, who is the state's top official on workers compensation, said the state doesn't require schools to track placement rates. She said she still expects good training that will lead to good jobs.

"That's our ideal, is to get these workers back to work," she said.

Cuellar points proudly to one graduate who now drives his own computer repair van, and she said a second passed a college soldering test. The problem is, that's just two out of more than 100 students.

"We are trying our best," Cuellar said.

That's not good enough for lawyer Betsy Rodriguez, who said the Computer Institute failed miserably to train several students she represents.

"It's not a language issue. It's a fraud issue," she said. "The institute isn't a real school. This institute is an unaccredited facility. It's a warehouse."

The fake applicant who brought an undercover camera into the school asked if the school would accept her even if she failed her admissions test. She said the school didn't care.

Just two percent of injured workers like Avila qualify for free training. It can keep them from welfare, Medicare and homelessness. Now she's nearly out of money, doesn't have adequate training and doesn't have a job. She's hoping for permanent disability money.

"It's killing me," she said. "If nobody give me the opportunity. I know I don't have one hand. But I have ideas. I have head."

State officials say they'll now examine how to hold schools more accountable.

"You've caused me to want to dive in a little deeper and take a look at some of these, frankly," Kennedy said.