Archives Categories

Hillcrest offers different learning environment

June 6, 2014

At Hillcrest, students see small classes and more 1-on-1 instruction, while teachers help them cope and learn

Hillcrest Family Services was nothing more to Chaz Hagerty than a mysterious place for crazies. That perception shifted dramatically when the once-troubled teenager was placed in the treatment facility.
About a year ago, life spiraled out of control for Chaz. He said he was doing drugs, not coming home until late and performing poorly in school. “I kind of just had a don’t-care attitude,” the now-17-year-old said. “My family was worried about me.”

His parents removed Chaz from Western Dubuque High School and placed him in a Hillcrest residential education home. Chaz rebelled. “When I first came here, I thought of it as a punishment,” he said.
Chaz didn’t follow the rules, was antisocial and refused to talk to his parents. “Then, I realized … if you want to change, this is a good place to be,” he said. Now, whether he is in a classroom working on math problems or in a home sanding floors for credit, Chaz’s goal of graduating in May is at the forefront of his mind. “We’re proud of him. He’s come a long way,” said John Bellini, vice president of Hillcrest’s Anna B. Lawther Academy. Chaz is one of hundreds of examples of Hillcrest youth who have turned their lives around to graduate or return to their school after all hope was lost, officials said.
“The misconception is we work with bad kids,” Bellini said. “We work with kids who have some deficiencies.”

Anna B. Lawther Academy
Hillcrest is in the midst of its 25th anniversary of providing services on the Dubuque campus. It has grown from a handful of students in 1988 to more than 200 students from Dubuque and the surrounding area last school year. “I don’t think people realize that our school is as extensive as it is,” said Hillcrest President and CEO Gary Gansemer. “We are effective, and we are efficient.”

Hillcrest’s Anna B. Lawther Academy is an accredited school for kindergarten through 12th-grade students with mental health issues or histories of aggression, defiance and other emotional and behavioral issues. They include day students, who live at home, and residential students, who live on Hillcrest’s campus. Day students come to the academy primarily through Western Dubuque and Dubuque school districts, while residential students have a court order, private pay placement, court committal or voluntary placement. “These kids don’t thrive in typical school,” Bellini said.

Under the umbrella of the academy, Hillcrest operates five residential education homes offering behavioral health intervention services, vocational programs, child welfare services, therapy and counseling, and wraparound services such as intensive psychiatric rehabilitation for students who qualify.

In 2013, the Dubuque Police Department received 252 calls for service to the Hillcrest facilities on Hillcrest Road and Wilbricht Lane. Dubuque Police Lt. Scott Baxter said the majority of the police responses to Hillcrest were for runaway juveniles and disturbances or assaults. Bellini said 100 percent of the population has a history of aggression and there are times when Hillcrest needs extra assistance from an outside entity to deal with aggressive behavior. He also explained that since Hillcrest is not a locked facility, there are times when residents, some with an elopement history, run away.

Bellini has met with officials from the police department, Dubuque County Attorney’s Office and Juvenile Court Services for two years to discuss proactive ways to lessen those calls. In 2012, Hillcrest revamped its academy when it opened a spacious $2.4 million school and gymnasium to give disadvantaged youth a sense of school community. Although the new building replaced two cramped trailers, some classes still are held in other campus buildings. However, all students transition to the new building for art and gym. “We’re different because of a sense of community,” Bellini said.

The 17 certified teachers, most of whom have a master’s degree in special education, not only teach students, but they also address issues such as trauma and abuse. “The focus is education, but so much of what we do is counseling and working with the kids,” Bellini said. There also are 50 associates at Hillcrest who work directly with the students. The academy also has a part-time art teacher who was once the school’s principal. Mary Jo Pancratz, who wanted to interact more with the students on a teacher level, reiterated Bellini’s comments that staff helps students educationally and emotionally.
“Our job is to help them be a survivor,” she said.

On a recent day, there were 102 students in third grade through high school at the academy. Of those, 64 were residential students. Since the students are enrolled at Hillcrest in the Dubuque school district, the district is responsible for the student’s education. “We have Hillcrest provide the education, and we’re the conduit for the funding,” said Dubuque Superintendent Stan Rheingans.

Thoughts of easy classes with teachers who don’t care permeated Chaz’s mind when he arrived at Hillcrest. He learned he was mistaken. “They are all really nice, and they care about the students here,” he said. “There are actual classes.”

To efficiently teach students, Hillcrest’s class sizes are kept small. The average class is about eight students, and there are no more than 12 in each class. Chaz said those small class sizes and the ability for teachers to teach students one-on-one is really important so struggling students don’t get left behind. Small class sizes led to more one-on-one help, which helped Chaz improve his grades to A’s and B’s.

Bellini said a difference in education at Hillcrest revolves around student outbursts. Hillcrest views the outbursts as a lack of skills instead of a lack of motivation. For instance, Bellini described how a student who doesn’t know how to solve multiplication problems might be embarrassed and act out to divert attention. Through collaborative problem-solving, staff members and the student work together to find ways for the student to cope and learn those skills. Students also are allowed to take brief breaks if they become too overwhelmed in the classroom. A teacher will speak with the student and let him or her take a moment to calm down. “They’re not going to work if they’re frustrated,” Bellini said. He admitted some people might think the students are being manipulative with the breaks or by asking for headphones to concentrate. “Kids are trying to find ways to get their needs met,” Bellini explained.

Therapeutic classes
In addition to typical classroom settings, there also are individual therapeutic classrooms for students. Brian Tracht, 14, has thrived in a small therapeutic classroom with four other students, two associates and a teacher. “I feel like I’m safe here,” he said. Brian is a day student who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. In his classroom, the three residential and two day students work on various levels of subjects. Fran Brokens, a special-education teacher, works one-on-one with each. “I have students working on different things,” she said. “I love this — the small groups, the quiet environment.”

That small, structured classroom setting is what appealed to Brian’s mom, Beth Tracht, when her family moved to Dubuque from California. “He’s done really well,” she said. “It’s been really great. The teachers there and the staff work well with me. … I’ve always had a good relationship with them.” Brian has been at Hillcrest since March 2008, which is an unusual length of time. Bellini said Hillcrest typically works with the district to transition the students back. Tracht decided to keep her son at Hillcrest’s academy because “he thrives there.” She said that, when Brian started, he barely could read, and now he is close to his ninth-grade reading level. He also has improved his math skills and is getting along with his peers. “We’ve seen a lot of progress,” Brokens said. Tracht also likes the staff perspective that her son’s mental-health issues doesn’t mean he can’t be a productive human being. “That’s what you have, but it’s not who you are,” she said.

Education doesn’t stop in the classroom. Chaz has removed cabinets, sanded wood floors and painted walls as part of a program that allows him to receive one credit per semester while remodeling a home. “It’s nice because it teaches a skill,” he said. “Anything I didn’t know how to do they taught me.”  Three residential students were chosen to participate in the Communities Helping Adolescents Make Progress Successfully program. For about five months, the students have received credit and earned money to remodel the home on Hillcrest’s campus that will be turned into an adult transitional home for 18- to 22-year-olds. “If you go from here straight to on your own, that can be difficult for some people,” Chaz said.

Although he recently moved from a residential facility for boys to supervised apartment living, Chaz hopes to be one of the first residents of the new home he is helping to transform, he said. Bellini said the goal is to have the home open in July as a licensed program for up to five residents. Depending on weather, Chaz works with Craig Doerr, an associate, three hours a day, three days a week. They work together as a team. “We’re all equal. It’s like Chaz is kind of my boss, and I’m kind of his boss,” Doerr said. “I really see him doing well in the work force.” Chaz added: “It’s a lot more relaxed, and it’s a happier environment.”

Once a troubled teenager who didn’t care about school, Chaz has transformed himself and plans to attend Northeast Iowa Community College in the fall.

This article was written by Stacey Becker and posted to ? on Sunday, March 9, 2014