By Nancy Tannler


2014 Oregon’s Teacher of the Year was awarded to SE resident Brett Bigham, special education transitions teacher with Multnomah ESD. Bigham was Oregon’s first special ed teacher to win the honor.

Teacher of the Year Brett Bigham

Teacher of the Year Brett Bigham

He is honored by the award but acknowledges up front that, “It’s the staff I work with here that make what I do possible.”

The Southeast Examiner met with Bigham at the school, recently moved into the offices of MESD by the airport.

His twelve students have different abilities and disabilities and Bigham builds his curriculum to find their individual potential, ranging from someone learning to count to five to another student doing algebra.

MESD students range in ages from 17 – 21. They are in between programs and benefits they received as a disabled child and those available from the state for adults.

“People with disabilities can become very isolated once their daily school routine is over,” Bigham said. “They need to have some meaningful work and a connection to other people.” They need to find a niche in society.

Bigham and the outreach at MESD has become very resourceful in making connections for them with outside work/volunteer opportunities to help give these young people a sense of normal.

This is a high expectation for some of the students with severe disabilities, but they persevere at training and most attain some level of proficiency needed in our society.

One of the helpful innovations that Bigham did was to write guidebooks to help students, their families and teachers prepare for a visit to different places like the Portland zoo, a restaurant or walking over the bridges; outings that can be daunting for a person with special needs.

These guidebooks prepare them and help the event go more smoothly. Bigham has written fifteen manuals for outings around Portland and, because of their success, he offers an online course on how to write these books.

Another of Bingham’s ideas was a special daytime prom for special needs students throughout the area. This year they made 70 corsages so every young lady would have flowers.

The prom is held at Skate World in Gresham during the day so those needing special transportation could attend. Now in its sixth year, it’s been a big success and a model for other agencies serving the disabled.

Like all Portland Public Schools programs, schools funding is being cut or redirected from programs at MESD. Since the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law took effect in 2002, it has had a big impact on U.S. public school classrooms, especially ones for special needs students. These tests are not individualized  to the level of a student’s ability to learn so the school gets funding withheld because of test scores.

Bigham is working to design a functional living skills curriculum aligned to the new Common Core State Standards; a set of standards set by grade level in place in 45 states.

An example of a common core standard for the earliest grades is that students will learn to read and work left to right.

These standards are the building blocks of learning every parent and teacher use when teaching children.

Transitioning from the offices upstairs to the school below is a small cafe and gift shop where young people work and learn to serve food and make gifts that develop dexterity.

“Some of the students are able to get jobs doing shredding and packaging. They also volunteer at food banks, putting boxes together for those in need,” Bigham said.

Food boxes are one of the main reasons Bigham contacted The Southeast Examiner.

Oregon is sixth in the nation in childhood hunger. MESD does a Community Food Drive and this year, are planning to do 20 two week drives. They are looking for local businesses to place collection boxes in.

MESD supplies boxes and signs and does all the work. Students benefit by learning skills needed to work volunteer jobs around the city. It enlarges their world and provides access to community businesses. It also shows both the student and the city that no matter what the handicaps a student might face, they can still contribute to make Portland a city where every person has value and is valued.

For more info on how to participate, contact Brett Bigham at 503.262.4030 or .