PORTLAND – Pam Butler used to get several calls per week about her son’s behavioral issues.

Cameron, 9, a strong-willed third-grader with a penchant for taking comments literally, struggled to cooperate with students and teachers at Presumpscot Elementary School.

After doing some research, Butler decided to have her son tested. She found that he had ADHD — attention deficit hyperactivity disorder — and oppositional defiant disorder, or ODD.

Despite a lack of encouragement from Presumpscot school officials, Butler chose to enroll her son at Portland’s West School, which serves K-12 students with behavioral problems.

That was 2½ years ago. It’s one of the best decisions she’s ever made, Butler said.

“My son has become a much calmer, easier person,” she said.

“Not everyone fits in that box and can succeed within a mainstream school with one teacher and 20-something students,” Butler said. “West takes those kids who don’t fit into that box, looks at them individually, and finds out why they behave the way they do. Their staff is so welcoming and understanding. I can’t say enough nice things about them.”

This year, Cameron will leave West and begin attending Lyman Moore Middle School. It’s part of a districtwide philosophical shift, as administrators will try to reintegrate more of West’s students into their neighborhood schools.

Many students used to stay in West until they graduated from high school, said Superintendent Jim Morse. The administration now wants to focus on reintegration, sometimes after as little as 30 days.

The school has always highlighted reintegration as a goal, said Erin Frazier, the teacher leader at West. But the administration, and national trends, have put an even stronger focus on it.

Last year, West fluctuated between 40 and 50 students. Of those students, 12 were successfully reintegrated into their neighborhood schools.

Four of the 12 were reintegrated within 30 days, Frazier said. And in another instance, a student who spent 10 years at West was successfully reintegrated into his 11th-grade high school class.

West will start the 2011-12 year with 30 students. Its students face varied challenges, from violent or aggressive tendencies to interpersonal, psychological or emotional problems.

“It’s basically like the issues with students at any school, but more to the extremes,” Frazier said.

More than most neighborhood schools, West intensely focuses on structure and discipline. The school has three staff members for every eight students. And “there’s no question who runs the show,” Butler said.

Shortly after her son Cameron transferred to West midway through his third-grade year, he had a conflict with another student that twice interrupted class. The teachers made Cameron stay after school.

“When I went to pick him up, (the teacher) came outside and said, ‘Cameron owes us nine minutes,’” Butler said. “I said, ‘OK, do you need me to come in?’ And she said, ‘No, we’re handling it.’

“He gave them their nine minutes, and he never had a problem again,” she said.

West has a veteran team of teachers, social workers and a psychologist, which treats each student differently. They don’t suspend or expel students. They use testing, years of experience and discussions with the children to pinpoint the root causes of behavioral issues.

“Each behavior has a reason,” Frazier said.

In addition to the standard academic curriculum, the staff teaches social interactions and coping skills, like how to control your temper or read others’ body language.

Some of the students are Advanced Placement and honors-level academics who are “brilliant,” Frazier said. Others are less accomplished. Behavioral and emotional issues don’t affect just one group of kids.

The staff employs various therapeutic methods to help the children. When students act out or won’t cooperate, they often are sent to a “support room,” where they bounce balls off the wall or jump on trampolines, to take their mind off whatever’s plaguing them. Once settled, they return to the class.

In more extreme cases, the school has restraints and a psychologist on staff.

For the most part, students work at desks in a normal school setting, Frazier said.

They love coming to school, she said. Unlike some neighborhood schools, West almost never has attendance issues.

Administrators and parents lamented West’s inability to find a new facility this spring, which could have enabled the program to expand.

Without West, many kids would struggle to stay in the system, and be left behind or forgotten, Butler said.

“The staffers are extraordinarily dedicated,” Frazier said. “They greet students on the bus and wave goodbye to them when they go home. … It’s a very different environment being in a sea of people with one teacher, or getting very specialized attention. And some of these kids need that.”

Staff Writer Jason Singer can be reached at 791-6437 or:

[email protected]


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