It’s no easy task to revamp a safety net for foster children. It’s even more difficult to accomplish that within two months in the middle of a school year. Just ask members of a coalition behind Horizons, the program dedicated to providing wrap-around services for some of the most vulnerable students in the state.
“It was an incredibly rushed process, but I think we pulled it off pretty successfully,” said Bryan Hinson, special education administrator at Douglas Education Service District. “The kids were very enthusiastic about coming to the program. ... Students who weren’t previously participating, now really are participating and are being actively engaged.”
Douglas Education Service District has joined with Roseburg Public Schools and the Douglas County Juvenile Department to start Horizons, a program that replaced Brightworks Academy at Phoenix School in Roseburg. Other agencies, such as the Department of Human Services and Oregon Health Authority, are also lending support to provide services.
At the start of the school year, students attended Brightworks, but in late September the school notified Douglas County commissioners there were concerns when it came to providing adequate services to the students. Most students in the program come from a traumatic background, have social-emotional needs and, sometimes, mental health needs that were not able to be addressed properly due to limited resources for the program.
By the end of October, the school notified the county that it would cancel its educational contract by the end of November. Douglas County notified the state two days later that it would terminate the contract to provide housing for the foster children when phone calls made by Douglas County Commissioner Tim Freeman initially went unanswered.
Then Freeman started getting calls back from the Department of Human Services, Department of Education and Oregon Health Authority, and started working with those state agencies, as well as local agencies — Douglas Education Service District, Roseburg Public Schools and Phoenix School of Roseburg — to try and find a solution.
By mid-November, an agreement was reached between the different entities to provide a new educational program, keep the foster care facilities open and provide an additional $1 million in funding through the end of the school year to be able to provide wrap-around services to the students.
Phoenix School of Roseburg continued to provide education to the students until the start of winter break to make it an easier transition.
The rapid progression gave Douglas Education Service District a little less than two months to get its new program, Horizons, ready at Rose School. The school had to be rewired for Wi-Fi, security cameras and seven staff members were hired in two weeks.
At the start of 2020, the children started attending their new school.
Karami Miller, who teaches 10th through 12th grade, previously taught the same population of students at Phoenix School of Roseburg. Kenneth Wong was a long-term substitute teacher at the prior program and was hired by Douglas Education Service District to teach sixth through ninth grade.
“I’ve noticed that attendance, it seems to be improving,” Miller said. “I know there were two particular youths that were super hit or miss, and one of them has been here pretty much every day. That’s been huge.”
Students are being transported from three different locations where they are housed. Douglas County provides shelter for up to 36 students, the Fowler House holds up to 16 boys, River Rock holds up to 14 youths of any gender, and Rising Light can house up to six girls.
At Horizons, students eat breakfast, head to classes, eat lunch, attend more classes and spend their afternoon taking career technical education courses at Phoenix School of Roseburg before heading back to their residential facility.
Students at Horizons are between the ages of 12 and 18 and spread out over two classrooms. One classroom is home to sixth through ninth grade students, the other 10th through 12th grade.
There are two classrooms, a special education classroom and a media center at Horizons. The special education classroom also functions as the cafeteria where students eat meals provided by Roseburg High School.
Each morning, special education teacher Mamie Gurney asks students to fill out breakfast and lunch requests, as well as requests about which career technical education program they’d like to participate in.
Hinson is working with the Roseburg Public Library to stock the shelves in the media center, which has a library, computer access and lounge area.
On the walls in each room the students visit, they are reminded of classroom rules, restorative justice and how to manage their time wisely.
Throughout the school day, students are joined in classrooms by teachers, instructional assistants and line staff from the county’s juvenile department.
Rose School consists of two main buildings at different elevations, connected by a hallway. Students attending the alternative school take classes in the upper elevation building, while Horizons takes up the majority of the lower level. Some GED classes and online courses are taught in the lower level building, but there have been no incidents between the programs.
The two educational programs share the gymnasium.
“They really like that we have PE equipment that we get to use,” Miller said. “Just that physical time, especially PE. They’ll start to tell you things about themselves and their lives. Like today, we went for a walk and one of the girls was telling me her story. I think that’s my favorite part — building a relationship with these kids.”
Miller added that sometimes just letting the children sit and talk is important and meaningful.
And although the students don’t stay in the program for the four years they would at a regular high school, she said she is able to form bonds and create a trust with many of her students.
“I know that some of these kids are only with me for a short amount of time, but even seeing that little bit of growth and letting somebody in, it’s hard when they leave,” Miller said. “Especially when I don’t get to say goodbye.”
Hinson said when he saw the previous program at Phoenix School of Roseburg, he quickly realized that keeping career technical education was important to the students. Horizons has a contract in place which gives students 45 minutes of those classes each day at Phoenix School of Roseburg.
“Some of the things they were doing to the CTE program over there was just really fantastic and I could see the enthusiasm in the kids’ eyes. I wanted to make sure we could continue doing that,” Hinson said. “The students were already involved and some were mid-project. They were working with vinyl-cutting tools and making stickers, and I didn’t want to take that away from them because they were so enthusiastic about it.”
Students have access to agriculture, health technology, life skills, manufacturing and design, and trades classes at Phoenix School of Roseburg.
In addition to education and shelter, the students also receive behavioral rehabilitation, skill-building, recreational activities, counseling, treatment, and access to health care. The high degree of care these children need means they cannot be placed in foster homes or attend regular classrooms, according to a joint press release sent out in December by the education service district, school district and county.
“We’re talking about a really underprivileged population who’s not been afforded a whole lot of opportunity in the past,” Hinson said. “The state’s doing a lot of talk about equity right now. To me what is equitable for this underprivileged population is to have more access to as much as we can offer. And we’re hoping this is a model that we’re building here that can help in other parts of the state, be replicated in other parts of the state, that would then help prevent some of what you hear about with DHS having to put them up in hotels or send them out of state.”
Hinson said students moving from school to school makes it difficult to get accurate and up-to-date paperwork and know what services each student needs.
It is his hope that once a new student comes in, they spend about a week going through assessments in order to find out what services that student requires and where they are academically.
As of last Thursday, there were 27 foster children from the county facilities at Horizons, one at Rose Alternative School and one at Roseburg High School.
Horizons students will be encouraged to sit down with a transition specialist and work on a plan to further their education at a different institution.
“We really see this as a place for when they first come in, as new residents, where they can stabilize,” Hinson said.
Hinson said the program is currently in search of a curriculum to align with Roseburg Public Schools.
“I would like to closely align with what Roseburg is using so that our students can have that more seamless transition,” he said. He added that his original plan didn’t work out, but that he and other staff members are continuing to work on acquiring a curriculum.
Horizons also has a GED program and credit recovery program to help students catch up.
“Typically these kids, especially the high school aged kids, are coming with very few credits just because they’ve bounced around,” Hinson said. “Education has been hit and miss for years by the time they get to this point. ... That’s a big piece of what we’re trying to figure out.”
People from the different organizations meet twice a month to address issues that arise in the program. There are also trainings twice a month, overseen by the behavioral health department from the education service district, to go over how to address mental health and emotional needs for the students.
Despite the pace at which the new program was started, multiple people have called it a model for how this population of students could be cared for.
It’s the first program that sees a school district, education service district, county government and state departments work together in a plan to address all of the needs of the child with the employment of highly trained and specialized personnel, officials said.
Department of Human Services spokesman Jake Sunderland said in November 2019 that the changes made to the contracts in Douglas County could strengthen and preserve the state’s ability to provide appropriate services to the most vulnerable children in the foster care system.
Miller said, “These kids have been through so much, they’ve been bounced around so much. They’ve been in different places, different educations, in and out of school. To have something solid for them, I’m super excited. When I found out what this program was gonna be, I was really excited to be part of it.”
Hinson noted being able to help the students regulate their emotions, so they can access more educational opportunities and successfully transition to other programs will be the goal at Horizons and how the success of the program will be measured.
Because of how fast everything went, some materials are still coming into the school.
Just last week they received ViewSonics, an interactive software program that allows for more collaboration between students and teachers, with a large display screen. The registrar started work last week and Hinson had a stack of applications on his desk for the position of the transition specialist, the last open position, to look through.
The building still needs new curtains, carpets and whiteboards, which will likely be installed during spring break.