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Removing barriers to success

Heron Creek offers therapeutic support to students from throughout the area, including LO

REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Heron Creek K-3 teacher Chelsea Boone received specialized training to work in special education.Before a federal law was passed four decades ago, families would send children to an institution if they were having difficulties navigating the mainstream school environment because of mental or emotional issues.

But times have changed.

Schools have been established to specifically support special needs children — including Heron Creek, a school that several Lake Oswego students attend. And legislation designed to help vulnerable groups has had a dramatic impact, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a federal law passed in 2004 that governs how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education and related services for children and youth between the ages of 3 and 21.

“If it’s a barrier to your success in school, and you can’t get what’s called ‘reasonable benefit’ at school, then you are eligible for special education services,” says Linda Eastlund, the Clackamas Education Service District’s director of special education services. “Before (passage of the 2004 law), there was no right to special education services guaranteed.”

Every school district has its own plan for supporting special education students. In the Lake Oswego School District, that plan can include Heron Creek — one of the many programs and services offered by the Clackamas Education Service District (CESD) to its 10 member districts.

Heron Creek's two campuses provide therapeutic support for students who are sent by referral; currently, 11 of the school's students are from Lake Oswego. Students often attend Heron Creek because they exhibit aggressive behavior; suffer from cognitive impairment; are withdrawn, depressed and anxious; or all of the above.

Having such specialized care “didn’t just happen overnight,” Eastlund says. “It was a process and there have always been different people with different amounts of needs in school. The idea of helping kids out, that isn’t new. But now there are more options, and we can address more significant disabilities.”

Eastlund says there are a few Heron Creek students whose parents bring them from other districts, some from as far as Washington, just to get the kind of care CESD provides. The program is in demand and interest is growing, she says, although students cannot enroll without a referral and a discussion among the adults in their life.

“There’s the notion in special education about the least-restrictive environment, and what that says is that students have to be educated as close to their home school and community as they can be,” Eastlund says. “That’s why it takes a team to make this decision, because students have to be in an environment (that provides) the support that meets their needs. Sometimes, that’s a regular school. And sometimes, that’s getting on a bus and going to a separate program.”

There’s a greater understanding today of what students need, Eastlund says, and more resources are available. But there is still “a lot of stigma around mental health needs.”

“I think that’s a big piece of it: that (some people think if depressed) people just tried harder, they would not be depressed or they would not have those kinds of challenges,” she says.

REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Chris Schwerdtfeger, a counselor at the Clackamas River Drive campus, says what's key for him is developing trust in the children at Heron Creek. It makes it easier for him to connect with them when they need his help.

Therapeutic support

Heron Creek was founded with a Safe Schools grant in 2000 as a day treatment program for children with emotional needs. But day treatment includes more involved care and could not be continued without the grant, Eastlund says, and so the facility transitioned to an educational program with a therapeutic emphasis in 2001.

To accommodate steady growth in the program, CESD rented classroom space for a satellite location at Marylhurst University in spring 2015 and then moved it in the fall to a site on Clackamas River Drive in Oregon City. The school's Eastham campus in downtown Oregon City is at capacity with 54 students, Eastlund says. The Clackamas River Drive campus holds 31 students and is also full, she says.

“Prior to that (second campus) opening, they were sending kids to other programs outside of the county,” CESD Superintendent Milt Dennison says.

There are 16 full-time staffers at the Eastham site and 17 full-time staffers at the Clackamas River Drive site, with five teachers at Eastham and four teachers at Clackamas River Drive. Both sites have educational assistants and part-time positions that include occupational therapists, speech language pathologists, clinical psychologists and a shared psychiatrist.

Eastlund says such a large staff is definitely necessary when students require extra support. It's a different style of teaching, she says.

Classrooms each include a special education teacher, an educational assistant and a therapeutic coach. Except in classrooms with students with intellectual disabilities, there is one educational assistant per student and an eight-student cap; other classrooms have a nine-student cap.

“Anytime I talk about my position, people are like, ‘There’s a need for structures like that or there’s a need for a school like that?’ Heron Creek K-3 teacher Chelsea Boone says. “I think it’s something people aren’t fully aware of, but there are a lot of things we do here that I think are different than other places, like collaborative problem solving.”

The idea behind collaborative problem solving is teaching children the thinking skills they may need outside of school, such as handling transitions between tasks or thinking before responding. A child’s challenges can be addressed by building up these skills.

In one classroom, a chart is taped to a few desks that also helps build skills. It has color-coded boxes numbered one to five — with one being happy and five being piping mad — and cartoon faces depicting moods next to them. Students have options for how to handle their moods; for example, they can simply point to one of the moods to indicate that they need help calming down.

Clackamas River Drive site supervisor Chris Burns says this is helpful for some kids who have trouble verbalizing emotions or even knowing what the emotion is that they are feeling.

Kids also can handle “kinetic sand” (which mimics the consistency of wet sand), squeeze a stress ball or play with various objects called “fidgets.” They’re all intended to offer peace through touch, like a teddy bear would. Fidgets and other sensory items can also help students concentrate on their studies and help keep anxiety and intense emotions at bay.

“If you’re feeling agitated, it gives you a place to discharge that energy without having to leave the room or without having to miss instruction,” Eastlund says.

REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - In one classroom, a chart is taped to a few desks that also helps build skills. It has color-coded boxes numbered one to five - with one being happy and five being piping mad - and cartoon faces depicting moods next to them. Students have options for how to handle their moods; for example, they can simply point to one of the moods to indicate that they need help calming down.

An evolving system

Burns says sometimes children just need a distraction.

“When we’re getting frustrated in a situation, we can tell ourselves what to do to calm down,” Burns says. “But they might not have that ability. So we use other ways to break that cycle, so they can refocus.”

Students participate in a physical education class for 30 minutes per day, but they can also play basketball on the outdoor court or go to the gym if they need a break and a class isn’t using the facility. There’s also a regular art class.

In addition, students are offered several places to find peace, including a Light Room that features comfortable places to sit, a water tube shining with blue light and a lampshade trailing hair-like purple strands of light. Another soothing place is the Rainbow Room, which features a swing and a projector beaming a cartoon city’s nightscape on the wall.REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Clackamas River Drive site supervisor Chris Burns says the children sometimes need to hold something to fidget with to distract them from their own frustration and help them concentrate.

“I think it’s been a real evolution in the education system for kids with disabilities,” says Pat Kaczmarek, CESD communications specialist. “And it’s still changing all the time.”

Instead of disciplining students after they misbehave, the idea is to give them what they need to develop healthy emotional responses and avoid misbehavior in the first place, Burns says.

“It’s not the punitive approach. … Instead of trying to get kids to fit a certain mold, we’re trying to fit education to suit the kids,” he explains.

To help the students, Chris Schwerdtfeger, a counselor at the Clackamas River Drive campus, says what’s key for him is obtaining their trust. That can mean being a calm sounding board when a child is angry or frustrated about something and starts to raise his or her voice.

“If they’re angry and they’re cursing and they get mad and call me a name, very rarely is that about me,” Schwerdtfeger says. “It’s about something else that’s been going on with them. It’s about them being upset. I just happen to be the person that’s there listening at the moment.”

The Eastham campus has social workers who support families’ needs, and Schwerdtfeger is also a trained social worker. Psychiatrist Kirk Wolfe splits his time between campuses, with duties that include consulting with families on their child’s medication.

All these resources and staff members are available to not only support a student while at Heron Creek, but also to help a student return to the district he or she came from. The goal is to assist the children in coping with their personal challenges and reintegrate them back into a mainstream school, Eastlund says.

Community members can also play a part in that process, Eastlund says. Issues of confidentiality make it difficult for the public to offer support to Heron Creek through volunteering, but anyone can take a mental health first aid class to learn how to respond to someone in a mental health crisis.

“If, as a community, we all built our skills, we’d have a better, stronger community with maybe fewer stereotypes and stigmas," she says, "and that would really help our kids.”

By Jillian Daley
503-636-1281, ext. 109
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Learn more

• For general information or employment opportunities at Clackamas Education Service District’s Heron Creek program, visit http://www.clackesd.k12.or.us/specialed/heron.html.

•For more information about the program, email Stacey Sibley, program coordinator, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

• For more information mental health firsat aid classes, visit mentalhealthfirstaid.org/cs/take-a-course/find-a-course. The nearest upcoming class offered through Mental Health First Aid USA is in Wilsonville, but it is full. There are classes being held in Salem and St. Helens, however.