‘In the right hands’: Kids with autism getting their own school
A few weeks ago, school kids filed into classrooms where the teacher and setting were just right for them. The kindergarteners got pint-sized furniture and ABCs on the walls. Preteens had teachers who understand their learning and emotional needs.
High schoolers went to a more adult setting as they prepare for independence.
That situation has never been in place for 7-year-old Sam Haas of Roscoe. Sam has autism. He couldn’t handle a regular classroom and found it difficult in special education programs offered by school districts.
Monday, Sam finally will go to a school where he fits, the new Autism Therapeutic Day School opened by Easter Seals of Metropolitan Chicago at its Rockford branch, 650 N. Main St. Monday will be the first day of school there for 10 Rock River Valley children.
Eventually, the school could serve 50 3- to 21-year-olds.
Sam’s mother, Heather Haas, couldn’t be happier. Sam has been going to the school for tutoring for two weeks. She said he loves it.
“He throws on his backpack and says, ‘Let’s go to school,’” Haas said. “He is largely nonverbal, so for him to say that, it’s fantastic.”
Haas has nothing but praise for the special ed program in Roscoe schools, where Sam attended since the family moved here from Texas in March. It’s just that his needs go beyond what that district could provide, she said.
“He has had some behavioral issues during tutoring at Easter Seals, and they dealt with it so well,” Haas said. “It’s been such a huge relief to know he is in the right place, the right hands, and we as his family are going to get support from the school as well.”
Learning life, social skills
At the Therapeutic Day School, Sam and the other students will be taught life skills as well as academics. Their days will include speech, language, music and art therapy, sensory integration exercises or other services they need. The entire staff, including teachers and aides, a pediatric nurse, social worker, behavior interventionist and medical director, has been trained to serve children whose primary diagnosis is autism. Clinical services will be provided by the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Rockford.
Helping the students learn to socialize will be a big part of the experience because the pupil-teacher ratio will be low, initially about 2-to-1, said Jennifer Sims, administrator of the school.
Sims, a special-education teacher who has an administrative certificate and training in behavior disorders and learning disabilities, worked for the West Central Illinois Special Educational Cooperative for seven years.
The school will run year round, with regular school year holidays and vacations between the seasons. Hours will be 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and, soon, an after-school care program will be offered by the Rockford Park District.
Working with school districts
Most of the initial students come from smaller school districts around Rockford that don’t have elaborate special ed offerings, Sims said. Tuition, which comes to $180 a day, is shared 50-50 by the state and the home school district of the students.
Easter Seals Executive Director Jim Powers said students have to be referred by their local school districts and have to have an individual education plan. The Therapeutic School will continue to work closely with the local school districts, Powers said.
The Rockford school, and another opening in Waukegan, are the third and fourth schools for children with autism operated by the Metropolitan Chicago Easter Seals organization. The Chicago-based agency, which merged with the Rockford Easter Seals in April 2006, spent $415,000 renovating the 50-year-old building on North Main to get it ready for the school.
The demand for therapeutic schools continues to grow.
In 1992, one in 10,000 children was diagnosed with autism, Powers said. Today that number is one in 125, and the number of autistic children grows by 10 percent to 17 percent each year.
“Better diagnosis might account for 50 percent of that increase but as for the rest, right now, nobody knows,” Powers said.
Staff writer Geri Nikolai can be reached at 815-987-1337 or firstname.lastname@example.org