Piper Sangston doesn’t need much to capture the attention of her students. With a few kind, respectful words, each picks up their writing instruments, note cards and begins scribbling down the three things they’re thankful for that day.
It’s the way each class starts, a way for them to focus their normally chaotic minds. Sangston’s class at Tillicum Middle School is part of the Cascade program, which offers alternative education for students diagnosed with learning disabilities.
As a counselor, Sangston uses somewhat nontraditional methods with the students, which have consistently provided far more positive outcomes, according to Tillicum’s Assistant Vice Principal Duke Truong.
Truong said Sangston continually goes above and beyond her job requirements, often “spearheading” student home visits and ensuring they get to class. He said she’s able to break through perceived barriers between faculty and students.
“She’s instantly familiar with them,” Truong said. “She connects with everyone. She truly defines the passion of meeting the needs of students.”
A few weeks ago, the Washington Association of School Social Workers highlighted her efforts with the Distinguished School Social Worker of the Year Award.
“We’re trying to rewire things for them, refamiliarize them with what it feels like to have pride, a sense of strength,” Sangston said. “I think of social workers as the behind-the-scenes techs of a play. The award is an acknowledgement that my work is important. It’s nice to feel admired.”
Last week to celebrate the holiday season, Sangston and the class built candy houses. Despite the gooey frosting and seemingly endless amount of high fructose corn syrup and sugar, the students were gracious with each other.
Abby Howard, a student teacher who worked with Sangston this fall, attributes all of the success to her mentor.
“She plans for every detail, for everything, things I wouldn’t have ever thought of,” Howard said.
One student was having a very difficult time in the mornings. As a test, Sangston provided the student with a heating pad and snack. Howard said once the student got both of those things no one would believe they were interacting with the same person.
Melody Parker, a fellow Cascade teacher at Tillicum, said Sangston personifies empathy, a constant struggle for the vast majority of Cascade students.
“She’s a great support for these kids and the staff,” Parker said. “She helps them emote through their daily lives. If they’re having an emotional day, she gives them the tools to deal with those emotions properly and handle those situations. I couldn’t do my job effectively without her.”
Sangston said she couldn’t imagine doing anything else and hopes to continue to provide a safe environment for children for years to come.