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Colorado Springs students rise to challenges at School of Excellence

December 18, 2017 Updated: December 19, 2017 at 10:29 am
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photo - PARA Lakisha Barnes works with Avery Shaw, 5, to calm him down during class Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, at the Pikes Peak BOCES George Saiter School of Excellence in Colorado Springs.  (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
PARA Lakisha Barnes works with Avery Shaw, 5, to calm him down during class Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, at the Pikes Peak BOCES George Saiter School of Excellence in Colorado Springs. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)  

Most classrooms include students who have behavioral, social, emotional, developmental or physical challenges.

Imagine every student having issues, and you'll see the School of Excellence.

Operated by the Pikes Peak Board of Cooperative Educational Services, or BOCES, the school specializes in working with kindergarten to 21-year-old students who have issues such as uncontrollable anger, physical aggression or autism spectrum disorder.

"We love these kids as our own," says Principal Susan Flores. "Our goal is to help them be successful."

The School of Excellence, located in a former Harrison School District 2 building near South Circle Drive and Interstate 25, contracts with 18 public school districts in the region.

"These are kids who have intensive needs, and when they can't be successful in their districts, they come to our programs," said Deirdre Shearer, director of exceptional students. "We are an important part of the special-education services in this entire region."

The ultimate goal is to return students to classes in their home district, following one year of acceptable behavior and no digression during school breaks. With older students, the program assists them in securing employment, moving on to college or joining the military.

Students arrive with histories that can include hitting, spitting, kicking, biting, head butting, prolonged screaming, throwing desks or other items, running away and using obscenities.

Others have aversion to touch, sensitivity to light, food idiosyncrasies, a lack of communication skills, suicidal tendencies, delinquency or other troubles.

"They might go through some hard knocks - some are ticketed or on probation or have court dates," Flores said.

Overall, the students are sweet, staff say, but there's no way to sugar-coat their behavior.

As she gives a tour of the school, Flores nurses a partially dislocated kneecap; she was injured while unsuccessfully trying to stop a student from shattering a window.

But Flores views the incident as progress. At the beginning of the semester, the middle school student who smashed the glass likely would have taken out his aggression on a staff member, Flores said, instead of an inanimate object.

"He's my buddy," she said. "It wasn't personal. He feels bad - he asked me if it was healing OK."

There were consequences; the student was suspended for the property damage and must do community service at the school, Flores added.

Achievement at the School of Excellence differs from traditional schools. Each student has an Individual Education Program, or IEP, a written set of academic and behavioral goals that is developed, reviewed and revised according to regulations and laws and in conjunction with parents or guardians.

Thus, "Their growth may not be increasing three points on an SAT," said Flores.

Some older students are mentors to younger ones. As role models, they must control their own actions in order to show smaller kids how it can be done.

That strategy has benefited 14-year-old Anakin Orman, who heads to Amber Bumgardner's kindergarten through fifth-grade class when he needs a break from his middle school lessons.

Aidan LaVigne, 8, sits with his mentor, middle schooler Anakin Orman, while teacher Amber Bumgardner works with him in class Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, at the Pikes Peak BOCES George Saiter School of Excellence in Colorado Springs. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

On a recent day, Anakin held 8-year-old Aidan LaVigne on his lap and talked to him about microbots, Aidan's dog and Smurf movies.

"This school works more with the kids on a personal level, instead of handing them a worksheet," Anakin said. "I used to get in trouble a lot - I had issues with being physical - and I'm learning how to control that. Working with the little kids helps."

Aidan, who has autism, said his favorite parts of school are field trips, such as to a trampoline center or a place with a bouncy house.

He's focusing on making eye contact with adults, and doing so earns him a coveted penny. Students receive the shiny copper coins as rewards for positive actions, which can be cashed in for incentives, such as 10 minutes of movie time or five minutes of playing a game on an iPad.

Teaching at the school is admittedly a tough job, but the rewards outweigh the downsides, says Bumgardner, who's in her third year there.

"The kids' success is what gets you to come every day," she said. "Every single kid is making progress. You may see a classroom get destroyed in the beginning, but then you get results."

Five-year-old Avery Shaw, a nonverbal kindergartner who is low-functioning on the autism spectrum, since September has advanced from knowing two communication signs to nine.

PARA Lakisha Barnes blows bubble to calm Avery Shaw, 5, during class Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, at the Pikes Peak BOCES George Saiter School of Excellence in Colorado Springs. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)  

"He's learning to ask for what he wants and how to be a student," Flores said.

Communicating is the most difficult thing to deal with day in and day out, said Avery's dad, Robert Shaw.

"Before, he would just grab me by the hand and take me wherever he wanted to go and I had to guess," he said, adding that the school also has helped his son in other ways.

"He's getting into routines that help. Every morning when I say, 'Time to go to school,' he grabs his backpack and jacket, goes to the front door and gets on the bus," Shaw said. "He enjoys going to school."

Shaw, who is active-duty at Schriever Air Force Base, said he's "very pleased" with Avery's improvement.

"As a parent, you're learning how to deal with autism as you go, so you're always skeptical of new ventures," he said. "The school has been a pleasant surprise."

Elementary student Nathan DeAngelis is allowed to wear a baseball cap to school, which is normally banned, because the overhead lights bother him. The hat helps him feel secure.

"I like everything here," Nathan said, "especially my best friend."

Eighth-grader Marina Montez said the teachers are nice and help her with her needs.

"The kids are pretty nice, too," she said. "They don't pick on you. If someone does say something, the teachers do something."

The lessons fit her abilities, which Marina, a budding artist who decorated her classroom door for Halloween and Christmas, said she also appreciates.

"I just do better at this school," she said.

Marina also has worked on effective coping skills, having age-appropriate conversations and not arguing with staff, Flores said.

"She's been really successful," said Flores, who in her previous job was named Outstanding Assistant Principal of the Year for Colorado in 2015 for her work at Ellicott Elementary School.

Positive reinforcement, holding students accountable, following through on expectations and providing incentives are among the techniques the staff uses to turn around students.

A crisis intervention team handles emergencies, and members are trained to use physical holds, restraints and padded rooms where children can safely de-escalate.

All incidents are documented and reviewed for how situations can be improved, Flores said.

The School of Excellence has grown from 50 students three years ago to 116 this semester. Eleven are leaving in January for their home schools, and 12 new arrivals are expected, Flores said.

Some programs have higher transition success than others. A program for nonverbal autistic children has a nearly 100 percent rate of returning children to their home district, Shearer said. Another program for K-12 students with "serious emotional disabilities" has a 20 percent return rate.

The building, which the BOCES obtained and refurbished four years ago with funding from a state grant, and new programs and leadership have led to the expansion.

Pat Bershinsky, former superintendent of Edison School District 54-JT in Yoder, took over as head of the BOCES for this school year. He is making changes at the school, including a focus on grade-level academics.

Turnover has been high; Bershinsky is the fifth director in eight years. But in the way he led Edison 54-JT to be the top-performing school district in the state in 2016, he's working on improvements at the School of Excellence.

"It's a demanding job, for sure," he said. "For me, it was the right direction. We brought Edison way up, and I was looking for the next challenge."

Changes at the school include revamping the Peak program, for expelled at-risk students and dropouts.

"That's a difficult population, too, and there's definitely a need for a quality program in that area," Bershinsky said.

Eleventh-grader Dre Davis works in the computer lab Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, at the Pikes Peak BOCES George Saiter School of Excellence in Colorado Springs. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)  

Eleventh-grade student Dre Davis, who is working on recovering academic credit he lost in the ninth grade, is researching the Trojan War.

Dre, 16, would like to enlist in the Navy. He sees it as the best option. He's applied at three places to work in the meantime.

Older children also learn independent living skills, such as making a bed, doing laundry, cooking and by working in a student store.

"They don't just give you work and say, 'Do it,'" Dre said. "They actually teach you. And they let me work at my own pace. It's been really great."

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