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High Rewards For At-risk Students

Students approached their teachers at the front of the Columbia River Maritime Museum’s Ford Room. They accepted awards for positive attitude, self-awareness, resiliency, best smile, outstanding student and other life accomplishments, truly earned by the students in Clatsop County facing the biggest challenges to a traditional education and everyday living.

Clatsop Handup!, a branding moniker for the Astoria High School and Astoria Middle School Consortium classrooms serving some of the most at-risk students in all five Clatsop County school districts, held a celebration Thursday for its students and more than 30 business and public and nonprofit donors.

Luke Ydstie, the standing bass player for Blind Pilot, serenaded the audience with sister Renia Ydstie, a transition specialist who helps find employment for students, and consortium teacher Mark Erickson.

Clatsop Handup! recently formed, as an entity of the Astoria School District, to further seek support from businesses, educators and citizens. The celebration was to showcase who the community is supporting.

“These are pretty high-needs kids,” said Bill Shively, who teaches in the program at AMS. “The students who are placed there are placed there by our educational team, for a more individualized education. That education focuses in on the specific needs they have both academically and socially/emotionally.”

Linda Berger, director of special education programs for the district, said there are nearly 50 students in the consortium, 30 of them coming into Astoria from such districts as Warrenton-Hammond, Seaside and Knappa.

There are four consortium classrooms in Astoria. Shively’s group at AMS learns social competencies. Melissa Kinzig’s class at AMS learns life skills. Erickson and Steve Sabatka teach life and transition skills at Astoria High School, preparing students for vocational opportunities and independent or supported living after high school.

“We’re not shoved off into some temporary building,” said Sabatka, who lauded the district for doing so much to include students in special-education programs. “We’re at the heart of the school. In this county, there’s tremendous acceptance. We’re part of the community.”

There is also a related classroom outside the consortium at Seaside Heights Elementary School teaching kindergarteners through first-graders functional academics. Warrenton Grade School has a classroom doing the same for kindergarteners through eighth-graders.

The only reason students in the program are as successful as they are, said Shively, is because of teaching assistants, more than 20 of them spread out over Astoria’s four classrooms. They help each student based on their Individualized Education Program (IEP), mandated by the federal government through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The consortium program is always looking for hands-on learning opportunities for students. Their current projects include campus recycling, rhythm sessions, art projects, candle making, a passive solar greenhouse, composting, sewing and website vending.

“We just planted sweet peas and tomatoes in our class,” said 13-year-old Mickenzie Simmons about one of her class’ projects at AMS. “It’s new to me, because I’ve never been in a greenhouse before.”

The program is constantly looking for opportunities for hands-on learning to help the students look beyond their daily lives. Shively said it’s open to any suggestions.

“My job is to go out and find job sites for our kids to work at,” said Carrie Thoreson, a job coach in the program. High school students ages 14 to 21 in the program find work experience in the community at such locales as the Astoria School District, Astoria Ford, Dairy Queen, the River Song Foundation, Petco, Video Horizons and others. About 12 Astoria students are working in the community, said Thoreson. The program is always looking for more opportunities to get its students working in the community.

Shively said that donations for the use of facilities (museums, parks and other attractions) and donations of regular learning opportunities (horseback riding, bowling, sewing, etc.) are often the only way the program can afford to take students out of the classroom and provide them with those life experiences.

More than 30 businesses and other organizations donate to the program in some way, and he’s hoping to increase that number.

This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.

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