Joe La Fountaine, interim superintendent at Days Creek Charter School District, sits alongside Erin Payne, a Douglas ESD behavior interventionist who works in the district.

Get to Know Douglas ESD – Empowering youth through mental health support

Erin Payne hit the ground running. She’s a Douglas ESD behavior interventionist at Days Creek Charter School District. Kindergarten through high school students attend the campus nestled along the South Umpqua River, eight miles from Canyonville. She started working in the district at the beginning of the school year. All of the district’s 232 students have access to the mental health support Payne provides.

“From day one, Erin demonstrates connectedness and leans into what’s needed,” said Joe La Fountaine, the district’s interim superintendent. He explained that connections begin with learning students’ names and building relationships with parents. “Erin is one more connection. She has been a tremendous resource for the school and community.”

Payne offers a listening ear when students need to talk, provides guidance and promotes positive mental wellbeing. She uses various techniques such as joining students in the lunchroom to help them build relationships with each other and see their similarities. When students experience anxiety, she helps students process what’s fact and what’s fiction. She also works with larger groups of students.

“Behavior is a form of communication,” Payne said. She explained that understanding a student’s life experience can help get to the why a student is struggling. “Anger is a secondary emotion. There’s something else going on.

Payne works closely with school staff who refer students to her. When needed, she refers parents to outside resources. “I can do what I do because of the team,” she said. “We help kids be seen and heard.”

La Fountaine shared that behavioral support for students is part of the district’s integrated plan.

What may surprise people is that the school district has access to the services that Payne provides at no cost. In fact, no-cost behavioral health support is currently available to all school districts.

Last January Douglas Education Service District received news that would change lives. The agency received federal grant funding to expand school-based mental health services. As a result, Douglas ESD partnered with Bushnell University to recruit and train behavior support staff. This approach combines classroom learning with real-world experience by funding a 3-year Clinical Mental Health Counseling Masters Program from Bushnell University and simultaneous employment through Douglas ESD by placing participants in local school districts to provide mental health supports. The grant covers the tuition costs and fees. Evening graduate classes occur locally at Umpqua Community College. UCC has generously donated classroom space and technology support.

There are currently 13 first-year graduate students from Douglas ESD enrolled in Bushnell’s local Clinical Mental Health Counseling Masters Program that began last August. The program also includes other students who aren’t part of Douglas ESD’s cohort.

Payne is actually a second-year student in Bushnell’s graduate program. She provides her Douglas ESD behavioral health colleagues with a glimpse of what the next steps in the program look like. She’s even a mentor to a couple of first-year graduate students. Jon Williams is a graduate student mentored by Payne and a behavior interventionist for Douglas ESD based in Elkton School District.

“Everyone has a story to why they joined,” Williams said. The cohort participants represent individuals employed in diverse fields, ranging from education and non-profits to the tech industry.

Williams shared that the participants work in schools during the day, study at night and attend Bushnell’s graduate school classes one day at week at UCC. “We’ve created an awesome connection and to think we’re all working together to help people, makes the connection even stronger,” he said. “Helping is the seed of our connection.” He also mentioned that the cohort supports each other in self-reflection and provides counseling to each other as part of the curriculum.

Douglas ESD’s Director of Behavioral Services, Kirsta Colley explained that the cohort’s working motto is to increase wellbeing and decrease overwhelm for students and staff in schools throughout Douglas County. “We’re noticing a positive difference in kids,” she said.

Since the start of the school year to the beginning of January more than 500 students have received behavior services for a combined total of 3,300 visits. The support helps students learn to focus, control impulses, manage emotions and express themselves.

Amy-Rose Wootton, Douglas ESD’s former behavioral health director and Cati Adkins, the agency’s school-based mental health services grant manager are credited for writing the grant and building partnerships with Bushnell University and Umpqua Community College.

It’s important to recognize that on Jan. 6, 2023, U.S. Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley announced that four Oregon school districts were awarded a combined School-Based Mental Health Grant Program funding of nearly $20 million from the U.S. Department of Education. Douglas Education Service District received federal grant funds totaling $6,808,215. The funding is being awarded to the agency through the year 2025, which is 71.4% of the total dollars that will be used in collaboration with other programs. This grant plays a critical role in expanding mental health support throughout school districts in Douglas County.

Many moving parts help children learn and thrive. Douglas Education Service District is one of the moving pieces. The agency partners with school districts and organizations. The goal is to increase opportunities for all children, from birth to adulthood. This article is part of an ongoing series that features programs and people who help students succeed.