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Estacada School District officials move more students into general education classes through inclusive practices

PMG PHOTO: EMILY LINDSTRAND - Elementary school students work on a math lesson. In recent years, the Estacada School District has strived to increase inclusive practices and give more opportunities for general education students and special education students to work side by side.

During a recent Friday morning at Clackamas River Elementary School, a small group of students worked with an educational assistant as the class completed a math lesson. Later that same day, a student in Estacada High School's culinary arts class paced back and forth, but his peers didn't seem disrupted.

For the past several years, the Estacada School District has strived to increase inclusive practices, which means special education students and those with behavioral concerns are spending more time in general education classrooms rather than self-contained classes or outside placements.

"If they're able to be supported in traditional classrooms, we want to put them there," said Maggie Kelly, communications director for the school district.

On Friday, Jan. 10, members of the Estacada School Board joined Estacada School District Superintendent Ryan Carpenter, Student Services Director Jason Hobson and leaders at Clackamas River Elementary School, River Mill Elementary School, Estacada Middle School and Estacada High School on a tour of classrooms in each school to see inclusive practices in action.

Beneficial shifts

School leaders noted that the transition has had positive aspects for all students.

"One of our biggest takeaways has been that any student could experience dysregulation, and having staff that is trained to handle that will impact general education students just as positively," Kelly said, discussing the benefits of having additional educational assistants on staff to help students when they undergo difficult emotions or situations.

Estacada Middle School Principal Ben Hargrave said some students have taken the opportunity to practice empathy and leadership.

"A student might be having a hard time following an adult's instructions, and another student sees that and interrupts and says, 'Come with me. Let's go to class.' That happens in multiple contexts each day," he said.

All of the classrooms school board members visited included students who previously would not have been included in a general education setting. Educational assistants worked with small groups of students at all grade levels, some of whom are served by student services and some of whom are general education students.

This year, the Estacada School District has 42 educational assistants to support students and teachers in the classroom. Prior to the focus on inclusive practices two years ago, there were 36 educational assistants.

Along with help from educational assistants, students also support their peers with classroom content, which has been another benefit of inclusive practices.

"If students already understand something and they can teach someone else, it can reinforce their understanding," Hobson said.

PMG PHOTO: EMILY LINDSTRAND - A small group of Estacada elementary school students work together on a recent Friday morning.

Supporting individual needs

Along with educational assistants, or when extra staffing is unavailable, teachers use a variety of techniques to support all students.

A key element of inclusive practices, Hobson explained, is taking note of what individual students need to be successful. Some students benefit from getting up and walking around the classroom, and others may sometimes stand on their chairs.

"Teachers can explain to the class that we're all individuals, and sometimes we need to take a break," Hobson said. "There's a perception about inclusive practices that if this student gets to stand on the chair, everyone will want to. We rely on the teacher to say, 'that's ok for this student, but if everyone does it, it gets disruptive.'"

When students aren't in general education classes, they spend time in places like the Estacada Middle School achievement center. Some students in the center work on boosting foundational skills like math, reading and writing, while other students, who are more impacted by their disabilities, work with curriculum specifically designed for their needs that can include letter recognition, reading and life skills.

The length of time each student spends in the achievement center and in general education classes depends on their specific needs. For example, one student spends 10-20 minutes in general education classes and then works on curriculum specifically designed for him in the achievement center.

"He spends a significant part of the day in here, but also pushes out and interacts with peers," achievement center teacher Tammy Brotnov said.

PMG PHOTO: EMILY LINDSTRAND - Young students in Estacada work with an educational assistant.

Additionally, there are elements in each school designed to support students who are struggling. Elementary school classrooms offer calming corners and middle school classrooms have alternative corners to give students an opportunity to deal with difficult emotions.

"If students feel escalated, they can work on the zones of regulation. There are activities to help regulate, like yoga and breathing activities," Brotnov said, discussing the achievement center's calming corner.

Looking to the future

Estacada School District leaders noted that the implementation of inclusive practices hasn't always been easy, but the results have been worth it.

Through the transition, teachers are supporting a diverse collection of needs in a single classroom.

"The first month of school looked very different than today," said Jennifer Behrman, principal of River Mill Elementary School. "We put a lot on our teachers but they rose to the challenge."

Clackamas River Elementary School Principal Amy

Hudson noted that, "there's been a lot of training, talking, collaboration and trying new things."

"There are a variety of needs, (and we want to ensure that) teachers are feeling equipped to support all students and all needs," she said.

Hargrave added that just as student needs are diverse, the best ways to support them often vary.

"Our teachers really want to do a good job. There's a lot of pressure to understand what that silver bullet is, but it's more complex than that," Hargrave said, noting that the work is ongoing.

Leaders are excited about the benefits that inclusive practices have brought to the district so far and the ones that will come in the future.

"(Students) can go to their neighborhood school and interact with their peers, and be supported in and outside of the classroom," Kelly said.

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