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Sebastopol school for students with special needs, mental health diagnoses expands to serve younger students

The Press Democrat - 5/30/2024

May 30—A new building will help increase the school's capacity by a dozen preschool learners, who Sonomy County districts say there is a rising need for.

It started with one student.

In 2021, a Santa Rosa City Schools first grader faced months of hardship connecting with school work, largely because of learning difficulties coupled with trauma he'd experienced before starting school.

He was given an individualized education plan, designed by district special education leaders in consultation with his family. After a few months, it became clear he needed more assistance than the district had at their disposal.

"We really needed someone who would be able to take care of his individual needs," said Carolina Castro Ballard, a program manager for the district's special education department.

That's when she reached out to Plumfield Academy, a private therapeutic school in Sebastopol.

The school long served Sonoma County students with social, emotional and learning differences. But its students were typically older; those who were assessed later or whose districts had spent a longer time trying to meet their academic and therapeutic needs.

When Castro Ballard reached out, the school was at capacity. Executive Director Jill Davidson and her team made room for the first grader, but it quickly became clear there were others just like him.

Soon, the school will be able to accommodate them. Plumfield staff and their district partners celebrated the groundbreaking of a new building dedicated to these young learners at a ceremony on Wednesday.

It comes after three years of discussion between the school and the county's biggest district about the swelling number of kindergarten and first grade students experiencing difficulties regulating emotional and social aspects of school, fueled by the pandemic school closures.

"Each year, in November or December, I start getting referrals from districts who have during the first semester really tried to meet the needs of their students and who have learned that they need something different," Davidson said.

When a student goes to Plumfield, their previous individualized learning plan is amended, allowing access to the school's individual and group therapeutic counseling, psychiatric support and speech, language and occupational therapies.

And classroom sizes are small: only three to six students are assigned to one teacher, who often has one or two instructional aides.

The extra support is crucial to student success at Plumfield, Davidson said, many of whom are on the autism spectrum, have mental health diagnoses or learning disabilities.

As more districts referred young students to Plumfield following Castro Ballard's call in 2021, the school began using "every nook and cranny" to expand their capacity from 18 to 26, by creating classrooms spaces for students in transitional kindergarten through third grade.

But besides classrooms, much of the school spaces are shared.

"By having our 26 students ranging from first grade to 12th grade (sharing) some common spaces — we're asking a little more of them than we typically would," Davidson said. "Our older students need a place that is also developmentally appropriate for them and encourages the kind of academic and social participation that is right for 15, 16, and 17-year-olds."

This will no longer be the case when the two-classroom building opens its doors in January 2025, increasing the school's capacity by a dozen students.

"The importance of having a partner who could work with certain individual students and really be able to turn over some of that work has been enormous," said Santa Rosa City Schools Executive Director of Special Services Steve Mizera at the outdoor ceremony on Plumfield's campus.

Behind him was the empty grass field where the $1.3 million building will be erected. It will contain a library, an art room, a restroom for staff and for students. It will be surrounded by a deck for outdoor instruction and have a dedicated playground.

The new classrooms will be solely dedicated to early learners K-3, allowing for a developmentally appropriate environment that is separate from the older students.

Plumfield Early Education Teacher Suzi Donovan said the building will further the school's philosophy to "truly put our students' needs first" at Wednesday's ceremony. She also spoke to the unique challenges of her early education students.

"My elementary students have missed many foundational skills, due to distance learning but also their individual learning differences," she said. "This has made traditional school very difficult, if not impossible for them to learn."

Donovan has taught in public and private schools for over twenty years before starting at Plumfield this school year.

Early learning is unique, she said, where students are welcomed to learn through sensory play and exploration. In the preschool grades, students develop motor skills, language skills and cognitive skills while also exploring their own creativity and problem solving.

"Many of (our students) missed out on introductory school experiences and activities like these," Donovan said.

"Our new early building — which is coming, and I'm very excited," she added, while briefly looking back and the field, "will provide my young students with the dedicated space to achieve their goals and to meet the needs of even more students with social emotional and learning difficulties in our community."

Report For America corps member Adriana Gutierrez covers education and child welfare issues for The Press Democrat. You can reach her at Adriana.Gutierrez@pressdemocrat.com.

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