Going to the Principal’s office is not always a bad thing at Plum Creek Academy
HIGHLANDS RANCH- For Mary Page, every day is an opportunity to make an impact. Whether it is a student able to take the bus for the first time without behavioral challenges, or a former student who is empowered to ignite his own photography career, every day brings a new opportunity, and no two days look alike.
Page is the Principal of Plum Creek Academy, a special education program in Douglas County School District that delivers a high level of mental health services and an aligned curriculum aimed at stabilizing students emotionally and academically.
Plum Creek houses two unique programs: The Serious Emotional Disability (SED) program offers services for high school-aged students whose disabilities prevent them from progressing in the general curriculum offered in the neighborhood school environment. The Dual Diagnosis Program (DD) offers services for secondary-aged students who have a cognitive impairment with co-occurring emotional and behavioral disabilities.
“Plum Creek is unique in that we are pretty specialized in our SED program,” Page said. “We’re also unique in that we’re a small setting, we have a very high teacher to student ratio here. Kids have the opportunity to go back to their neighborhood school or to go to various other schools throughout the District. Some students have the option to graduate from here if they would like to do that.”
As part of a continuum of services for special education, Plum Creek is considered a model by many and is sought out by parents in need of a supportive community for their children.
“We’ve had people from outside the District come in to look at the structures we have in place with the Level System and who have wanted to look at how things work here so that they can take those ideas and try to implement them,” Page said.
“Every time I looked for a program for my kids, it was out of state,” said Lisa Coe, a parent of a student at Plum Creek. “Cherry Creek doesn’t have this program. Jefferson County doesn’t have this program. Denver doesn’t have this program. We’re it. So, we’re really lucky to have this program in Douglas County.”
Originally studying to become a vocalist with while attending a small fine arts college, Page began working as a substitute teacher after her daughter was born 14 years ago. It was then that she fell in love with the special education classroom. Within the next year she was in a teacher-in-residence program and was teaching full time in a special education classroom.
After five years of teaching, she found her way to Douglas County’s Eagle Ridge Elementary as the Significant Support Needs (SSN) teacher. She temporarily moved to Littleton and began pursuing her Masters degree in educational leadership, returning to Douglas County in 2013 as a Special Education Coordinator with the District. It was towards the end of that year that the Principal position at Plum Creek became available.
“Thinking as a coordinator what kind of person I would like to see here at Plum Creek, I thought ‘oh my gosh, maybe I should apply for that.’ I took a long shot and here I am,” Page said. Smiling, she added, “I think I have the best Principal gig in the whole District.”
As Principal with a small student population, Page gets to see and interact with the kids each day, even witnessing the progress they are making individually.
“Coming to the principal’s office isn’t always a bad thing here at Plum Creek,” Page said. “Sometimes kids want to come and just talk something through, or they’ll have an idea and they want to know if I support their idea.”
One senior approached Page with the idea of Plum Creek holding an annual year-end dance.
“She’s spearheading it, and she wanted to know if I would approve that. So she’s looking at fundraising opportunities, she’s putting a cleaning committee together, all of those things. That part of my job is fantastic, I love that,” Page said.
To Page, seeing the impact that she and the Academy staff are making with students is the best measurement of success.
“We have a family in our Dual Diagnosis program where the son was refusing to get on the bus everyday, and the parents were really struggling with his behavior at home,” Page explains. “Well if you can’t come to school you can’t learn. So we decided to backpedal and we went very simplistic: let’s work with compliant behavior to get on the bus and we collaborated with the mom and transportation. Now the student is successfully on the bus, his behaviors have significantly decreased. His mom has called and said what a difference it’s made in their lives at home, his behavior is changing, and their trust in the educational system has improved. That’s a huge success story. He’s coming to school, he’s learning, and he’s happy. We’re teaching him the right kind of behavior to have these needs met.”
The primary goal for students transitioning into Plum Creek is that they are able to stabilize themselves behaviorally, socially, and emotionally. Some students can apply this very quickly. Another student who has been at Plum Creek for three quarters is already looking to transition back to his home high school.
“He led his own IEP (Individual Education Plan), was advocating for what kind of goals he thinks he needs to have, and also realized that his coping skills in this environment may not be socially appropriate for the environment back at the high school,” Page explained. “So one of the goals he decided to write was ‘I think I need to spend some time over there and figure out how to make my coping skills more appropriate.’ That’s a huge perspective-taking for kids that don’t normally have that. That to me is a huge impact.”
It does occur that some students become very comfortable at Plum Creek and want to stay because they really love it there.
“We really encourage our kids to spread their wings and fly,” Page said. “For high school specifically I think it’s important to consider ‘what do our kids want to do after high school?’ Some of our kids will actually transition to a school like Arapahoe Community College, maybe finishing up their high school programming and taking classes there to get that experience.”
Page and other school personnel just this week had a visit from a former student of Plum Creek. He is living on his own, was recently promoted in his job to assistant manager, and has even started up his own photography business recently procuring his first paying gig. Using scholarship money he earned from a Missy Martin Scholarship, he is also attending Arapahoe Community College.
“He’s been so successful. He was talking to us today about the classes he’s taking. For me that’s a sign that he’s taken all the social and emotional skills he learned here and he’s applying them in his life, and he’s finding success. He wanted to show us the new car he just bought by himself, he bought his new camera for his photography business by himself. That to me is a huge impact. That to me is success.”
Q&A with Mary Page
Who inspires you?
The people in my cohort in my doctorate program are really inspiring to me. Chris Page, the new principal at Highlands Ranch High School, inspires me all the time. We’ve been able to share a lot of our personal stories together, and he’s helped me grow as a leader. Chris shared with me, that through our interactions that he’s begun to think differently about how to service special needs students.
Dr. Fagen is very inspiring to me. She’s a phenomenal teacher. I feel like she takes very complex issues and she’s able to simplify them. She has a really great way of seeing how everything fits together, and she has the tools to help people get there. But I love listening to her teach. For example at this last PK12 meeting, she was talking about balanced assessment – which could seem like a pretty dry conversation—but it was a very reflective several hours looking at our practice in our building, analyzing what’s important to us, what do we want to measure in our building, how do we know it’s quality. She’s giving us the opportunity to take things one step further. There’s just something very empowering about that. It inspires me.
What are your sources of strength?
I love coming to work everyday. I love the staff here. I’ve never been part of such a good group of people in my entire life. Everyone here is incredibly intelligent, they’re compassionate, very supportive of one another, we laugh together all the time, when one of us is having a hard moment one of us can come in and somehow everything feels better. The staff here is phenomenal. And the students, I love coming every day to be here with the students. It’s never the same day twice but everyday we have moments where we see that kid jump a hurdle that they haven’t jumped before, and I love that. I love that. And it happens every day here.
What are some interests or hobbies that you have that not a lot of people might know about you?
I’d like to get back into climbing 14ers again. I also have a beautiful daughter and she and I love to go get our nails done and just do girly stuff.
If you had an opportunity to pursue another career what would you choose?
I thought about doing a coffee shop jazz group, or a massage therapist.
Do you have any pets?
I have two crazy dogs. I love hanging out with them.
What was your first car?
My dad’s old Buick station wagon. It was old but it got me to and from where I needed to go. My friends called it the blue-bomber.
What is a dream you have for your school?
Oftentimes parents of special education kids feel displaced, when their kids are displaced, they also get displaced. The kids might not always get invited to other kids birthday parties at school. As a parent, that’s hard to watch your child not always be in the mainstream of things. I really want for our parents of special education to feel like they have a community, a place where they can go, and share with one another. Sometimes I think our parents don’t have that. My big dream is that all special education families in the district felt like they have a place where they belonged, just like any other family.