High Desert Education Service District’s Bridges program has been designated as an autism training site for educators statewide. A partnership with Bend-La Pine Schools, Bridges is a specialized classroom, housed at Lava Ridge Elementary School, that provides intensive instruction to students in grades K-3 on the autism spectrum. Bridges was selected as a training site by the Oregon Program Autism Training Sites and Supports project, which brings evidence-based practices to Oregon schools throughout the state. Bridges is the only elementary level training site in Central Oregon and now one of more than 40 across the state. Additional early childhood special education training sites are currently being established within HDESD program that serve children ages birth to 5 years.

 “The Bridges program at Lava Ridge is a wonderful model of how to support learners with autism and other developmental disabilities,” said Alicia Balfrey, autism consultant for OrPATS. “First and foremost, it is clear that the teaching team in the classroom genuinely respects and cares for each of their students. They make an effort to get to know each student and their unique qualities and needs, and those strong relationships help the students thrive! The program seamlessly incorporates a variety of evidence-based and best practices for students receiving special education, and they strive to implement those teaching strategies at a high caliber. They are always willing to learn or try something new with the students in order to help them reach their fullest potential. It also seems they make an effort to connect with families as a means of including caregivers as a crucial part of the educational team.”

 According to Balfrey, the level of organization in the Bridges classroom is one key factor in the program’s success. With a consistent daily schedule, and strong team engagement and communication, Balfrey explained that every member of the team knows what they should be doing at each moment of the day, which maximizes instructional time for the students. She adds that student independence is another important factor in Bridges’ success.

 “Students are encouraged to be as independent as possible throughout the day and receive instruction in multiple formats including group learning, direct instruction, and independent work. Every time I have the pleasure of visiting the Bridges program, I think to myself, ‘This classroom runs as smoothly as a well-oiled machine’,” said Balfrey, adding that student artwork and positive messages on the walls also creates a welcoming learning environment. 

While Bridges is a self-contained program, staff strive to create meaningful inclusion opportunities for every student to ensure they have a chance to learn alongside their neurotypical peers. Bridges staff includes a teacher and nine specialists who bring additional expertise in Autism, Occupational Therapy, Augmentative Communication and Speech Language Pathology.

 “It’s been really amazing to watch kids become learners while building their skills and connecting with their peers in a general education environment,” said Sara Ausman, special programs administrator for HDESD. “The dedication of the team, and their attention to detail as they support kids to blossom is remarkable and inspiring. They work incredibly hard to address the individual needs of students while also looking at the big picture and long-term goal of helping them become part of their own school and community. We could not do what we do without all of the staff working together to create this unique learning environment. As a training site, we are able to share our experience and expertise to help build state and local capacity to serve more students with Autism Spectrum Disorder in a way that allows for individualized services for students.” 

 OrPATS Project Coordinator/Training Supervisor, Darby Lasley, explained that training sites are selected based on team willingness to learn and consistently implement evidence-based practices for students with autism in their public school classrooms. 

 “What really makes the Bridges program stand out is the level of dedication from all members of the educational team,” said Balfrey. “Not just the classroom staff, but their related service providers and administrators too. It makes a huge difference when administrators are involved in programs like these, helping to ensure the staff are well-supported, identifying areas of need, providing resources and training, and getting to know the students themselves. The Bridges program feels like a community of support for students, and I am so honored to be a small part of it,” said Balfrey.