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Hays school meets needs, challenges

6/29/2013

By JUDY SHERARD

jsherard@dailynews.net

It might be Hays' smallest school, but Westside Alternative School, 323 W. 12th, has a big impact.

Averaging 25 to 30 full-time students during the school year, it has the school district's smallest enrollment.

The program began more than 20 years ago as a cooperative effort between USD 489, West Central Kansas Special Education Co-op and High Plains Mental Health Center.

High Plains, SRS (now Kansas Department for Children and Families), the Ellis County Attorney's office and various organizations collaborated in starting the school to keep kids in the community rather than placing them in group homes, hospitals or juvenile facilities, Walt Hill, executive director of High Plains, said.

It was a joint effort to solve a local problem, Ellis County Attorney Tom Drees said of the school.

"These are situations where, because of the school, we're not doing child in need of care," Drees said. "We're not breaking these families up; we're not moving these children into therapeutic foster homes or group living facilities out of Hays, so it's actually been a tremendous benefit to these families to be able to stay as a family in town with the special school and wrap-around services they provide."

"What makes Westside successful is the fact that it does address the needs in a collaboration of agencies," Anita Sheve, The Learning Center director, recently told the USD 489 Board of Education.

Prospective students are referred to the school after professionals have "exhausted all special education services (and) outpatient mental health services," said Mark Dinkel, who's been the Westside program director for 10 years.

"We really look for that least restrictive environment. Is there something else that we can be trying? ... We're going to try those things first before Westside."

The program works with children at risk for out-of-home, school or community placement because of significant behaviors and emotions, Mark Hauptman, USD 489 assistant superintendent of special services, told the board.

"Those students have an opportunity to come to this program, where there's a blending of education and mental health and parent support and family support all together in one program."

With the primary focus on managing a child's behavior disorder, High Plains and USD 489 jointly staff the school.

High Plains provides six recovery specialists, a therapist and a pool of recovery workers called as needed, including a psychiatrist and physician.

Dinkel estimates about 90 percent of the students take some medication, and the physician participates in their care.

Special education co-op teachers provide the education component in the three classrooms during the school year.

Students in grades K-12 are from the special education co-op schools -- USD 489, USD 395 LaCrosse, USD 388 Ellis and USD 432 Victoria.

"Special ed teachers are used to teaching kids at different levels," Dinkel said.

The school also has several student break rooms.

"Having the ability for kids, when angry or frustrated, to get away from the other students is real important," he said.

Dinkel said it's a challenge melding education and mental health plans, involving two agencies' staffs. The school meets its challenges with staff collaboration and structured and informal meetings.

"We do a very good job of that. If we don't get behaviors under control, academics are real tough to follow."

Referrals are school-based from an interagency committee, Dinkel said.

There are "far more elementary children eligible and needing that program than there have been," Hauptman said. "In our early childhood programs, we've been seeing and are currently seeing very significant behaviors and emotions difficult to control."

Students work on core academics, but rather than music, woodworking or art, students "receive mental health services -- therapy or psycho-social group rehabilitation services," Hill said. "That's where the mental health piece fits, as well as providing support and interventions during the day as needed."

Mental health services go beyond the typical school day to evenings and weekends.

Though the structured classes follow the traditional school year, High Plains operates a group program in the summer, Hill said.

"Primarily what we want to do is maintain gains that the youth has made during the school year behaviorally. Without structure, behavior can unwind."

In the past, students spent all day at Westside. Some now split their time between Westside and their school, if some classes are going well.

The goal is to transition students back to their traditional schools.

While the time varies, "one and two semesters is typical," Hill said.

It's rewarding seeing students transition back to their schools, and "come back and tell you their success stories," Dinkel said.

"The (Westside) impact goes beyond kids there," Hill said. "For every kid that comes here, it's going to impact 20 other kids because you have a child who's in a classroom and is pretty disruptive to the whole environment of the classroom and interferes a lot of time with the learning of the other children.

"It's not the fault of the kids who are here; they have their challenges. It's just an opportunity for them to stay with their parents. For me that's the greatest reward."