October 1st, 2012

Maine agency changes structure to improve services

Spurwink is a cute name for a serious, nationally recognized agency that for 50 years has provided mental health and educational services to New England children, adolescents, adults and the families that care for them.

The Portland, Maine-based collaborative prides itself on what President Dawn Stiles calls “a comprehensive array and continuity of services across the lifespan of individuals, from preschool services for kids with autism or behavioral issues, to in-home support services.” To keep offering the best services within the bounds of its finances and resources, however, this summer Spurwink strategically closed its flagship program and moved its youngest clients to a new location, allowing both dollars – and sense – to be allocated elsewhere.

Spurwink operates a preschool to secondary school education program at day treatment sites, which are licensed, private special education schools serving students with learning and emotional difficulties – kids with mental health diagnoses, intellectual disabilities and those on the autism spectrum disorder.

In 1985 it opened with just eight students, largely because public schools couldn’t aptly provide therapeutic services to children who needed extra help in their day-to-day educational environment.

Today, Spurwink serves 5,500 students. And today, says Stiles, “public schools are doing a better job of keeping kids in the public school system than they used to.” In the summer of 2012, Spurwink closed its flagship Roosevelt Program in South Portland, which opened in 1985 and was the treatment model for how Spurwink would help Maine’s children (students in fact come from across N.H. and throughout New England, as well).

“We had eight schools and now we have seven,” says Stiles, Spurwink’s president for six years. “This was something we evaluated for probably a year and half before we made the move and we examined a lot of facets.” Among them, she says, was that each school has its own staff of specialists (at each school is a special education teacher, occupational therapist, speech and language pathologist, social worker, transition specialist, psychologist, psychiatrist, and a nurse). By closing the Roosevelt school – whose upper-age students would be graduating out of the school and whose lower-age students would move to a new wing of Spurwink’s Portland-based Cummings School – Spurwink’s operating costs would be significantly slashed.

“We’re always looking for efficiency,” says Stiles. “We keep our administrative costs below eight percent and our funding goes to services.” Coupled with the Cummings School being owned by Spurwink (it leased the Roosevelt), and there was a compelling argument for the closing.

A positive outcome of the closing is that staff moved into Cummings, which means a strength-in-numbers increase in support for students. But in Stiles eyes, that fact is second in line behind Spurwink’s unusual in-house research team.

“We use strength-based, evidence-based approaches; [but] what separates us from other agencies is we have our own research department.” According to Stiles, the department – which comprises a director of research, two research assistants and an administrative assistant – does outcome studies, longitudinal studies and provides Spurwink clinicians the information they need to help improve the program.

“It’s something we really believe in,” says Stiles.

By Jennifer E Chase

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