Current:

River Hills School is a public sponsored special school for students with moderate, severe, and profound developmental disabilities. The school serves students from age 3 through age 21.

The unique setting is staffed by professionals with expertise in working with students with developmental disabilities. This expertise allows us to focus on the use of current and innovative instructional strategies, while incorporating the latest technology into instruction.

Approximately 120 students from local school districts within Central Rivers AEA attend River Hills School. There are 24 classrooms, each staffed by a licensed teacher and usually two paraprofessionals. Typical class size ranges from 5 to 7 students.

Support staff in the building include:

  • Special Educational Consultants
  • Speech – Language Pathologists
  • Audiologist
  • School Social Worker
  • School Psychologist
  • Special Education Nurse
  • Physical Therapist
  • Occupational Therapist
  • Work Experience Coordinator

History:

Editor’s Note: The following two articles were written in 1969 and 1981 and offer retrospective views of the history of River Hills. Although much of the terminology has changed overtime they have been left as written out of respect to the good intentions of the authors and to the times in which they were written. Mrs. James Fortier was a member of the area Association of Retarded Citizens during the time of the origination of River Hills. Mr. James Stoycheff is currently School Psychologist for Central Rivers AEA and has served the students of River Hills since April of 1979.

October 1969 History of River Hills School by Mrs. James Fortier

It is difficult to remember or imagine life without River Hills, and yet there was a time well remembered by many in this community when no school, no Association for Retarded Children and, indeed, no hope existed. Thank God, this is no longer the outlook we have today.

It was difficult, even after careful searching, to set what one might call the “beginning” for this wonderful school, but a safe date may well have been during March of 1954. This was the first meeting of the Black Hawk County Association for Retarded Children. The group met at the YWCA, and among those attending were two names you will quickly recognize: Mrs. Helen Henderson and Mrs. Barbara Emerson! Mrs. Henderson was elected President that evening—nine persons have now served in that capacity. They are: Mrs. Henderson 1954-56; Mrs. Lucille Stout 1956-58; Mr. & Mrs. Millard Mills 1958-60; Mrs. Barbara Emerson 1960-62; Dr. Paul Strayer 1962-64; Mrs. Carl Hanson 1964—66; Mr. Mills 1966-67; Sam Beatty 1967-69; and this year our President is Norman Lemmon.

Also attending this first meeting was a Mrs. Robert Adams who had recently moved here from Washington D.C. While Mrs, Adams had no children of her own at that time, she was interested in mental retardation because of her sister’s mongoloid child and her experiences as a Licensed Practical Nurse.

Some time shortly after the ARC first began, the United Services Director suggested the idea of creating services for the pre and post school groups who hadn’t any program whatsoever. The ARC, Society for Crippled Children and the United Cerebral Palsy group were immediately interested and decided to pool their energies into a joint effort. Space was needed for the venture and Mrs. Adams volunteered her basement.

Quite a beginning, wouldn’t you say? Well, seven little boys and one little girl were the first students enrolled in this program which began in March of 1955. Transportation was furnished by the Junior Service League. These ladies also took turns in helping Mrs. Adams conduct games, story times, rest period, lunch time and a session of jumping on a large mattress which had been placed on the floor. These classes were held two hours each Tuesday and Thursday afternoon—a giant leap forward when you recall that until this time there had been nothing.

News of the service began to spread and space for the increased enrollment was needed. In the fall of 1955, the old Rainbow Drive School was offered to the group rent free! The Exchange Club members arrived with hammer and saw, paint and brush and worked with such zeal that one could hardly recognize it to be the same place! With repairs made and the smell of fresh paint in every corner, the little group arrived—everyone was certain this would solve their problem of space forever. A director was appointed at this time, Mrs. Betty Wood; she served one year. Mr. Paul Morgan served as Director the following year of 1956-57.

Exceptional Persons, Inc., was founded in May of 1957, and Bill Brown was hired as Director. In the beginning, no one, including Bill, was certain what his job really was but he, nonetheless, began his career by setting out to learn the needs of the retarded in the community. Needless to say, he found the needs were plentiful. Bill Brown has indeed helped to make Exceptional Persons, Inc., the success it is today. From a beginning of complete uncertainty until today when he receives calls for help from everywhere in the country, it is nothing less than a miracle!

it was also in 1957 that Mrs. Carmen became Director of the Center. Another tremendous addition to ARC that year was the Black Hawk County ARC Newsletter, the monthly publication whose expressed purpose was, and is, to inform its readers of the progress being made and, hopefully, to challenge more to answer the needs of the future. The first edition numbered less than 400—today 1100 copies are sent throughout the State of Iowa and thirty out-of-state as far as California.

In 1959, Rainbow Drive School became headquarters for the Trainable Classes which were supported by the County Board of Education, These classes grew rapidly, until additional space was acquired at Hewitt and Longfellow Schools to relieve the overcrowding. As the County Board of Education took over Rainbow Drive, Exceptional Persons, Inc., through volunteer and parental financial support, continued to program for pre-school, post-school, and more severely handicapped children and adults in the Salvation Army Building on Hawthorne Avenue. Until this time transportation had been provided by parents and interested parties—now, the Junior Service League purchased a used school bus. What a joy it was to see that first bus pull up to the building and watch the children make their way on and off! To show you how that bus multiplied. “School/Agency Transportation” now operates a fleet of 18 buses. Otto Jessen was driver of the original bus, hired in January 1962. As the Center continued to grow, so did the number of buses, drivers, routes and children. To coordinate the needs to the equipment was a tremendous task in itself, so Mr. Jessen became Traffic Coordinator, driving only when the necessity arose, thus enabling him to handle the numerous problems which are never ending in this complex undertaking. Without a doubt, “School/Agency Transportation” has some of the finest and most dedicated drivers ever assembled.

Mrs. Carmen resigned her position as Director in 1963. It was in August of 1963 that Elmer Kortemeyer, Jr., came to our rescue. Upon touring the Center, I recall being very impressed by Mr. Kortemeyer’s calm and assured manner. From the moment he opened the first classroom door, I was stunned. Seeing is believing, but what I was seeing did not seem possible.. .children of every size, age and description, laughing, coloring, pasting pictures, rolling on mats and so on. Without a doubt my greatest shock came when we reached the gymnasium.

Having always believed that mongoloid children were the lowest in intelligence, (shades of the Dark Age thinking), the sight I was witnessing was simply too much! Here were several mongoloid children riding trikes, scooting in wagons, dragging pull toys, and playing with basketballs in an attempt to score! When I expressed my amazement, Mr. Kortemeyer patiently explained more about mental retardation than I had learned in the five years to date.

While impressed with the Center, but building was large and drafty and not beneficial to the children’s health. However, over the holidays the Center’s services were moved to the First Lutheran Church on High Street, and January of 1964 found the children busily engaged in learning all sorts of interesting facts about the new school–like where the bathrooms were and all the necessary things like that!

Mr. Kortemeyer began the very successful Summer Park sessions, carried out two weeks each summer when the church facilities were being thoroughly cleaned and repainted. What perhaps began with apprehension, ended beautifully, as the children enjoyed not only the fresh air but the change of pace as well.

Mr. Kortemeyer left our group in August of 1965 Dean Settle served from 1965-66. It was in 1956 that Larry McDonald became Director and he very capably serves in the capacity of Principal of River Hills School to this day.

The l lit t e group of 7 boys and one girl had grown by leaps arid bounds through these years. When we first came to the church in 1964, accommodations were spacious, but it was soon bulging at the seams. A hot lunch service was begun with Maxine Essman, who remains with us today, hired as first cook. Additional buses had been necessary, as well as several staff members, to accommodate the needs of an increased enrollment. Something had to give. classroom space in the nearby Grace Methodist Church eased the strain for a while, but everyone knew larger facilities were needed or children would have to be turned away. How do you turn them away when there is nowhere else for them to go?

So, thoughts, plans and ideas were hashed about at every meeting and in between. Everyone was looking at unused buildings of every description—none so much as dreamed of a new building. One might think this strange, but the services of the Center in themselves were such a “couldn’t be done” sort of thing that even the most involved persons could hardly believe it at times. A new building? Well, years of attic and hush-hush “conditioned thinking” had to be overcome by everyone in order to envision greater heights.

When it was learned that the government would not lend money for the older building, then and with a great deal of reluctance, the new building began to take form, in thought at least, but it still seemed a very remote dream.

About this time, the Minnie Crippen Foundation was searching for an ideal group to sponsor. They were looking for a dream and we had one. After many meetings between the Minnie Crippen and Exceptional Persons’ Board members, a plan was submitted to the Foundation. The presentation was given by Wayne Mooers and the architectural plans submitted for approval. The building would house a capacity of 356 persons. It would be 35,000 square feet, include 24 classrooms, lounge, library, kitchen, dining room and recreational facilities, including an enclosed swimming pool. A Federal grant of $296,904 had been approved, which was to include services for any retarded child from Area VII.

Once the presentation had been made, the war on nerves began. One or two members of the Minnie Crippen Board were out of town and before a decision could be made, they must hear the presentation which had been taped for their convenience. Following this, a very thorough study of the Will had to be made to ensure that Mrs. Crippen’s wishes were fulfilled to the fullest measure. Everyone thought of little else in those days, other than hoping and praying for acceptance.

Finally, on May 3rd, 1966, announcement of the new $800,000 Center was made jointly by Bill Brown of Exceptional Persons, Fred Koch of the Minnie Crippen Foundation, and Perry Grier, Superintendent of the County Schools.

The Minnie Crippen Foundation would purchase the 80 acre Hartman Reserve from the YMCA for $200,000, with the YMCA to continue its camp facilities as usual. Funds for operation would come through the County School Board and an allocation from the County Board of Supervisors Mental Health Fund. Bids were to be taken beginning May 15th and contracts let on June 10th of 1966. Ground breaking ceremonies were held in August 1966.

From there it was a matter of men and machines. The school site was a solid mass of trees and undergrowth; in driving past, one couldn’t imagine how everything could be accomplished—but, as you know, it was! The trees were felled, the land cleared and leveled and trucks and machines of every size, shape and description rolled in.

When summer of 1967 arrived the hot weather made working nearly inhuman and even more insufferable than the heat was the horde of insects that bit unmercifully. In visiting the site, I marveled at their stamina, knowing few persons would have had the endurance of those men.

Progress was steady, but time was short and it did not appear possible for the building to be ready for occupancy; Rainbow Drive School had been closed and services at the Lutheran Church had been terminated so there was nothing to be done but wait. If necessary, word would be sent out that classes would not be held until further notice. However, in learning the tremendous need for the school, these blessed men pushed even harder. Though some areas were still to be finished, nonetheless, the doors were open for the first day of school on September 5, 1967! The swimming pool was completed and ready for use the following year.

The new school was first called the “Black Hawk Developmental Center” but such a lovely building needed a much nicer name and this year it received just that … “River Hills”. Many people thought the school should be named for Minnie Crippen, but the Minnie Crippen Foundation vetoed this proposal and approved the name “River Hills” instead. So, the name River Hills is the expressed desire of the Minnie Crippen Foundation and it is equally as lovely as the building it graces.

Quite a History our school has, isn’t it? From nothing, not even hope, to a basement and eight students to this magnificent structure and an enrollment of 250. From Mrs. Adams and the volunteer Junior Service ladies to a payroll of 97 persons are indeed accomplishments truly worthy of the respect which has been shown and expressed by everyone working in the field of mental retardation and laymen as well. From the ignorance of a million yesterdays to the enlightenment which will create a brighter tomorrow. In working with the retarded it became apparent that not only the brain damage but audio, visual and speech defects must be countered for the individual to function at his highest level. For this reason, consultants from these various areas have been staff regulars. So that you can see how varied and complex the staff of River Hills is, we employ: 28 teachers, 16 aides, 13 work study students (from High Schools), 3 cooks, 1 Registered Nurse, 20 bus drivers, 1 secretary, 2 office work study students, 1 Curriculum Consultant, 2 hearing consultants, 2 psychologists, 1 vision consultant, 2 speech therapists, 1 reading teacher from Hawkeye Tech, 3 janitors and our Principal, Mr. McDonald.

If you recall, the motto for the Association for Retarded Children is “Unto The Least of These’’ . . . words taken from the Holy Scriptures which identify the foundation this group has built on. Certainly, because the efforts of the ARC are within the will of God, that it has succeeded so tremendously.

If all this progress has left you breathless, you needn’t feel badly, because I feel somewhat that way myself, even after delving into the past to uncover it bit by bit. However, one can easily see that given an idea to work on, people will and do come gladly to assist in whatever way they can. This we have seen through the many groups providing services to our school; the hair care, student parties, cookies and swimming pool helpers are but a few of the “extras” that have frosted the cake, so to speak! So, to say that any one person or any one group is responsible for River Hills would be untrue, for it is actually the efforts of many, many people. Likewise, it will be the efforts of many more to keep it growing.

Yes, we’ve come a long way, but there is a long way to go. Legislative measures must be established or updated, the St. Francis project, the Group Living Homes, and furthering the Sheltered Workshops at Goodwill which have only begun, are merely a sampling of the labors and challenges which lie ahead. “The triumphs over obstacles of the past, are the spurs which will inspire the accomplishments of the future.” So, don’t relax for even the shortest while. The sand in the hourglasses of time is shifting and the Bugle is yet calling us to action. May I ask if you will be heeding its plea?

May 1981 Rivers Hills: A need for change by James E. Stoycheff

(Presented originally for the ARC Blackhawk County Newsletter)

My intent in writing this article is to bring to the forefront a view which is becoming increasingly supported by parents and educators alike. That view involves the integration of the mentally retarded into the mainstream of society.

The history of River Hills, as outlined by Ms. Fortier in 1969, provides us with a comprehensive view of the struggle to obtain educational services for the retarded. Going from little/ no services in the early l95Os to the building of the River Hills facility in 1967 is quite an accomplishment. For many people, the opening of the River Hills School, and other facilities like it, was the attainment of an ultimate goal, educational services for the retarded. There are some, and the number is growing, who view River Hills as a step toward a much more comprehensive goal, the acceptance of the mentally retarded in society.

The largest steps seen to date to achieve this comprehensive goal have come through federal legislation (Section 504 of Public Law 93-112, The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Public Law 94-142, The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975). These laws not only mandate special educational services for the handicapped, but also specify that: the services be provided in the least restrictive environment, The following quotes are taken from Public Law 94-142:

Least Restrictive Environment

121 a.550 General,

(a) Each State educational agency shall insure that each public agency establishes and implements procedures which meet the requirements of 121a.-550-12].a.556.

(b) Each public agency shall insure: (1) That to the maximum extent appropriate, handicapped children, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children who are not handicapped, and (2) That special classes, separate schooling or other removal of handicapped children from the regular educational environment occurs Only when the nature or severity of the handicap is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.

121 a553 Nonacademic settings.

In providing or arranging for the provision of nonacademic and extracurricular services and activities, including meals, recess periods, and the services and activities set forth in l2la. 306 of Subpart C, each public agency shall insure that each handicapped child participates with non handicapped children in those services and activities to the maximum extent appropriate to the needs of that child.

Comment. Section 121a.553 is taken from a new requirement in the final regulations for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 973. With respect to this requirement, the analysis of the Section. 504 Regulations includes the following statement: ‘(A new paragraph) specifies that handicapped children must also be provided nonacademic services in as integrated a setting as possible. This requirement is especially important for children whose educational needs necessitate their being solely with other handicapped children during most of each day. To the maximum extent appropriate, children in residential settings are also to be provided opportunities for participation with other children.

River Hills provides excellent educational services to the mentally retarded, but it does so to the social detriment of the retarded and to society as well. It is one of the more restrictive educational facilities in AEA-7 (Health Center and other residential settings being slightly more restrictive) in that contact with non handicapped students is minimal to nonexistent.

In regard to Public Law 94-142, this would seem to be contrary to at least the spirit of the law. It is quite evident that the River Hills population could not be mainstreamed into any instructional programs with the non- handicapped, but why couldn’t the classroom be located in public school buildings? Contact with non handicapped students is important for at least two main reasons. First, the mentally retarded need to utilize those social skills which are developed in the classroom in various social setting (e.g. lunch room, recess and school assemblies with non handicapped). The second, and more important reason, is to give the non handicapped students the chance to interact with and accept the mentally retarded.

This latter point is extremely important because if the mentally retarded are ever to be socially accepted it will have to be through educating the public on a daily basis. The best means of accomplishing this is through daily contact (i.e. classrooms for the moderately to profoundly retarded in regular public schools).

The establishment of River Hills and federal legislation for the handicapped were a direct result of the ARC and other parent groups. If the moderately to profoundly retarded are ever to be accepted fully in society The establishment of River Hills and federal legislation for the handicapped were a direct result of the ARC and other parent groups. If the moderately to profoundly retarded are ever to be accepted fully in society then it will again take the efforts of ARC. This will not be an easy struggle, and for may the thought of having their child leaving the beautiful setting of River Hills for an out of the way classroom in public school may be unpleasant.

There will also be much resistance from educators and school administration for various and obvious reasons. It would seem that with declining enrollment and projected school closings, NOW would be the ideal time to begin to seek normalization of the mentally retarded. I would hope that this article may arouse members of the ARC to form a committee to begin to push for the full implementation of Public Law 94-142.

This article was submitted by Mr. Stoycheff, in response to our request for articles which expressed the concerns and views of our readers. It will probably cause many of us to reflect on our present system, and, perhaps a few of us to respond. We welcome your views, and we are pleased to see response to the ARC NEWSLETTER. It is your NEWSLETTER, and we want it to be an accurate view of the overall situation. We try to bring various issues to your attention so you can respond in a way appropriate to your beliefs. This is our last ARC NEWSLETTER for the 1980-81 school year, but well see you in the Fall.

-Dolly Fortier-President

Mid 1980’s

During the early to mid 1980’s the term “full inclusion” evolved which promoted total integration into the general education setting. This movement spread across the midwest and eventually led to the closing of all but two special schools for students with developmental disabilities in the state of Iowa, River Hills and the Des Moines facilities of Smouse and Ruby Van Meter Schools.

The reason River Hills remained open was parents lobbied the AEA, State Department of Education, and the State Legislature to keep this facility open.

Recent Times

The full inclusion movement of the 1980’s helped provide the impetus for schools to develop more services and programs for individuals with moderate to profound developmental disabilities.

While many special schools around the state of Iowa closed during this time it was the parents who kept the doors of River Hills open by lobbying the AEA, the local school districts, Department of Education and the Iowa State Legislature.

River Hills remains a viable service to the children, school districts, and families it serves. By having a specialized facility there is a more complete continuum of service options available to help meet those identified student needs.

The student population has changed significantly over the years with more students with more challenging needs. Specifically, the number of students with medical needs has increased dramatically and there has also been a significant increase in the number of students with challenging behavior.

Despite the challenges of the students there are a number of students that progress and transition each year back to their home school district, to a less restrictive educational environment.
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