Gales Creek staff, students turn calendar with sharpened behavioral skills focus

If the trio of teachers at Gales Creek Therapeutic Day School had a compass to guide them in their interactions with students, it would point straight out the front door.

That’s because this program for students with social and emotional skill deficits aims primarily to help them return to a traditional academic environment.

“The average stay at the day school is a year, but we’ve had students move back into a less restrictive school environment after six months,” said Kim Shearer, special education coordinator for the Forest Grove School District, which runs the program.

Other than Portland Public Schools’ Pioneer Special School Program, which serves students in kindergarten through twelfth grade, Gales Creek is the only in-district therapy program currently operating in Oregon, according to Special Education Director Brad Bafaro.

The 12 middle- and high-school students have average intellectual abilities but a variety of behavioral problems — from yelling to shutting down emotionally to leaving the room at inappropriate times. They often receive one-on-one attention at the school, located in the old Gales Creek Elementary School building on Northwest Sargent Road.

Previously they were bused around to various schools by the Northwest Regional Education Service District. “That travel back and forth was hard on kids,” Bafaro said.

Most of the current Gales Creek students, Shearer noted, have “experienced failure at their home schools” with academics or behavior or both. Some were suspended. “The team at their home school was maxed out in terms of their options for intervention,” she said.

Problem solving

A typical day at the therapeutic school begins with individual and group counseling sessions and continues with groups that practice stress tolerance and coping with strong emotions.

A single special skill is emphasized each week. “Radical acceptance,” for instance, helps students “to tell the difference between what they can change and what they can’t,” said Cassie Kenney, the school’s mental health specialist. “We talk about how to focus energy on what they can change.”

Special ed teacher Jesse Johnson handles most of the academic duties, running the teenagers — each of whom has an Individualized Education Program in place — through lessons in math, social studies, science and English. He organizes field trips and monitors students’ efforts to complete the district’s Odyssey online curriculum, which allows them to work at their own pace to earn high school credit.

One accommodation the staff makes is to allow additional time for students to transition between therapy sessions and classes. As the clock ticks toward the school’s 3 p.m. dismissal time — and if things have gone reasonably well and students have earned points toward an activity, they’re rewarded with a walk around campus or a game inside.

Level of trust

Students at the therapeutic school don't fit into boxes with tidy labels, said Kenney. “For the first 30 days they’re with us, we’re just assessing and getting to know them." The one thing they all have in common: Difficulty forming and maintaining relationships.

For that reason, Kenney said, establishing and keeping a steady level of trust is critical.

Success is incremental, measured not by grades but by the ability to sit through 45 minutes of math or use one of several strategies from a “self-soothe toolbox.” If a student is upset or anxious, teachers suggest calming activities: petting an animal, going outside for fresh air, listening to music.

Still, Kenney said, while she and her colleagues can teach such skills, they can’t make students use them, especially outside school hours.

“There are myriad reasons why they didn’t develop the skills we help them with here,” said Kelly Raf, the school’s behavioral therapist. “We tailor our support to what they need, and we don’t spend a lot of time asking ‘Why?’”

Unique in Oregon

Bafaro and Shearer, who works with families to keep tabs on where each student is on the spectrum between Gales Creek and his or her home school, believe strongly in the method.

“Schools more and more are seeing a need for therapeutic support,” Shearer said.

Ideally, such support and attention increases student motivation and sparks change. Three students are partially transitioning now, leaving Gales Creek for part of the day to learn at their home school, according to Bafaro.

Enrollment will fluctuate based on referrals and student need. “I have to figure out whether it’s cost effective or not,” Bafaro said of the therapy program. “But what’s best for kids in the district that have these needs is my greatest concern.”

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