Goal for Forest Grove's students is a successful and fulfilling life, says director Brad Bafaro

Brad Bafaro sits in his office in the big brick building on Main Street and thumbs through a report from the Oregon Department of Education.

It's a thin document - just a couple of pages - but its contents mean the world to Bafaro, the Forest Grove School District's director of special education.

The graduation rate of special ed students at Forest Grove High School in 2005, it says, was just a few percentage points shy of non-special ed pupils - at 78.4 percent and 82.9 percent, respectively.

Perhaps even more telling, fewer special ed students than 'regular' students dropped out of school that same year - 3.4 percent to 3.5 percent.

The numbers are significant, according to Bafaro, a Forest Grove native who's worked in the district for 27 years, most in special education.

'It means we're headed in the right direction,' Bafaro said. 'Things are clicking.'

His department, shored up by special education coordinator Angee Silliman, tracks the progress of between 785 and 815 students with a broad range of needs - from mental retardation to emotional disturbances to autism.

'There's a whole gamut,' said Silliman, who has been with the district for 12 years.

The largest group falling under the special education umbrella includes students identified as 'learning disabled.' Bafaro said.

That means 'there's a severe discrepancy between their potential and how they're performing' in reading, math and written language classes, he noted.

Higher than average

About 14 percent of Forest Grove's 6,000 students receive special education services, said Bafaro. That's higher than the state average, which has been on the rise in recent years.

'We're relatively comparable to the state numbers, but our district tends to have a higher level of kids who need extra support,' Bafaro said. Similar-sized districts - such as Tigard-Tualatin, Lake Oswego, Newberg and McMinnville - generally have fewer special ed pupils.

Part of the reason is the high number of foster and group homes in the area, including the Albertina Kerr center in Cornelius, formerly known as Straight Ahead.

Specializing in long-term care for high-risk students, some with severe mental and physical disabilities, the group home - one of nine in Cornelius alone - has 41 beds.

The student clients, seventh- through twelfth-graders, 'come from all over the state,' Bafaro added.

Numbers fluctuate

Forest Grove's special ed numbers fluctuate slightly from month to month as students become eligible for services or transition out of special education.

One of the goals in Forest Grove is to keep students in their neighborhood schools and with their age-group peers as much as possible, Bafaro said.

'We work really hard at getting our kids into the regular curriculum whenever possible,' he said. 'We try to focus on the strengths of kids and help them to be successful.'

Overall in 2004-05, about 72 percent of special ed students stayed in their regular classrooms for at least 79 percent of the school day, meeting the state's target in that area. Fewer than 2.4 percent of students received services in separate schools, residential centers or hospitals.

'We're experiencing more integration between general education and special education,' said Bafaro.

Few students are identified as needing special ed services before the third-grade, when the ability or inability to read becomes apparent.

'That's a big red flag,' said Silliman, 'but teachers are cautious about over-referring before that.'

Still, some students - those performing at the 20th percentile or below - can be identified between kindergarten and second-grade.

'That's when we try to intervene early and provide specialized instruction,' said Silliman.

Initiative established

A federal Response to Intervention initiative, designed to catch students who might have skirted past initial special ed evaluations, was piloted last fall at Dilley, Gales Creek, Fern Hill and Harvey Clarke elementary schools.

The extra scrutiny added four students to the district's special ed roles.

Each student is placed on an individual education plan (IEP) with a team of adults - typically a parent, a general ed teacher, a special ed teacher, an administrator and a physical or speech therapist - that supports him or her in their school building.

Team members meet annually to evaluate each student's progress.

'We ask ourselves, 'what are we going to specifically do to meet this student's needs,'' Bafaro said.

Specialized help can range from reading and math tutors to mental health counseling and more. Some students are assigned classroom aides.

The special ed department's attention doesn't end when a student turns 18. Pacific University runs a transition program, led by John Dull, for ages 18-21 on the Forest Grove campus.

It includes a work experience component for students able to hold a job.

Follow-up is important to Silliman and Bafaro, who this year instituted a tracking effort that includes student exit interviews, goal-setting and phone interviews six months, one year and two-years after they leave the district.

The overarching goal, Bafaro said, is to point each student in a direction that's most likely to lead them toward a successful and fulfilling life.

'When students leave the district, we want them to have the tools to go on to college, jobs and families as much as possible,' Bafaro said.

'The bottom line is, we want them to be successful citizens.'

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