Sharon Lohse has opened her heart — and even her home — to the students of North Marion School District, which she will be leaving after 31 years at the end of this month.
Lohse's retirement is bittersweet, she said, leaving a district that has been her home for so long.
"I like having the long-term relationships with families — students and parents," she said. "It's like a family atmosphere. And the job has changed so much that I've never gotten bored."
She said she has always been challenged, and that's why she eyed special education in the first place.
As a little girl growing up in the Salem area, Lohse always knew she wanted to be a teacher. When she became a kindergarten teacher in the Cascade School District, her classroom was positioned next to a special education room, and seeing the interactions there had her, "intrigued." She got her special education endorsement during the few years she stayed home with her two small children, and was hired by North Marion School District in 1986 to be the elementary school special education teacher.
Back then, special education was structured much differently. The model was similar to that of a tutor, in which Lohse didn't have her own classroom of students, but her room was open to those who needed extra academic intervention.
"When I came here, it was mostly helping with learning disabilities, mostly academic, and some behavior issues," Lohse said.
It was during this time that she met Kate, a first-grader whom Lohse said was the first severely autistic student the district had, as far as she knows. Kate's parents, overwhelmed with taking care of the little girl, accepted Lohse's generous offer to let Kate live with her family during the week. She eventually became Kate's foster parent, providing the special needs student with a second family.
That kind of intervention is just part of what makes Lohse tick. While Kate is her only foster child from her years in education, she has always had a heart for students who need individual interventions, from the student who decided to ditch class to run a race down Grim Road to another student who, on his first day of school, advocated for himself by solemnly saying there were too many kids in his class and "some will have to leave."
"It's a balancing act to meet the needs of a special ed kid and to meet their right to be with the normal kids, while not disrupting class," Lohse said. "It's all about moving them toward being as independent as they can be."
Students are considered under the special programs umbrella if a disability is identified and if it gets in the way of their learning. But even for kids who don't meet that criteria and are still struggling, Lohse still tries to help.
"We think, how can we meet their needs, because the bottom line is we want every student to graduate and succeed," she said.
Lohse's dedication to the program landed her the role of director of special programs in 1999. That role became even more complicated for a few years, as Lohse was asked to oversee English language learners and talented and gifted students, as well. While those are no longer under her umbrella, she still has more than two dozen employees and about 300 students under her supervision, plus she sits in on at least 60 IEP (individualized education program) meetings each year.
"It's almost like being a superintendent or principal of a building," Lohse said.
One of the reasons she's retiring now is the amount of regulations and paperwork involved with her job.
"More paperwork means not as much time with the kids, which is why I do it," she said, though at least nowadays she can do that on the computer instead of hand writing four- or five-page reports onto carbon paper. "I love the challenge, especially working with kids, I'm just tired of being in charge. I know that's strange, but my family is important to me too."
Her family includes her three children (including Kate) and two grandchildren. She also has her son's upcoming wedding to plan.
Taking over for Lohse will be Julie Jackson, another longtime administrator at North Marion. Jackson is currently the director of teaching and learning for elementary schools, but her final year before retirement will be spent with her first love: special programs. She started out her career in education 30 years ago as a lifeskills teacher in Woodburn.
"This is going home," she said. "I've always kept up my special education credential because I'm always looking to serve unique populations."
But she admits she has been shoes to fill.
"Sharon's been instrumental in our district, first as a teacher, then moving into the director role," Jackson said. "During that time the district has grown, the needs of students have grown and our needs for dynamic services have grown, and I can't thank her enough for all her contributions. I'm thankful that there's such a good foundation for our students being successful."
The biggest baton being passed to Jackson will be the debut of the Empowered to Work program, through which 18- to 21-year-old special education students will learn real world skills in a community-based learning environment, very much like the Bridges program put on by the Woodburn School District. The Bridges program, which has been open to other nearby districts, has grown beyond capacity, so North Marion is branching off with its own program starting this fall.
While Lohse is disappointed she won't be able to oversee the implementation of that program, she's happy to leave it and the department in good hands.
"This district is so special," she said. "Everyone here could go somewhere else and make more money or not drive as far. But everybody is here because they care about the kids."