Charter School Serving Autistic Children Opens in Texas
Responsive Education Solutions (ResponsiveEd), a statewide public charter school district in Texas, has opened the first public school in the Lone Star State exclusively serving students who have autism. Officials say the San Antonio school is one of just a handful of such schools in the country.
The school, which operates in collaboration with the Autism Community Network, is called the Foundation School for Autism and is an open-enrollment public charter. The school currently serves very young children ranging from three to six years old, with a range of autism spectrum disorders.
The school has three classrooms—one prekindergarten and two kindergarten classes— and can serve up to 27 students. School officials have plans to expand quickly as demand arises.
“Research shows that if a child receives early intervention therapies, appropriate and intensive therapy before the age of six, their chance of leading a self-supporting life doubles,” said Charles Cook, CEO of ResponsiveEd, which serves more than 7,200 students at 46 campuses across the state.
ResponsiveEd provides the teachers and administrators for the school, plus the building and infrastructure. The Autism Community Network, a nonprofit autism service provider, offers specialized training to the teachers and speech, occupational, and music therapy to the students.
“Each child receives an individual plan to develop and improve key areas such as verbal behavior, play, learning readiness, social communication, adaptive skills, independent work, classroom skills—and of course academics,” explains Jesse Franco, executive director of the Autism Community Network.
Classes are limited to 12 students, and the teacher-to-student ratio is one teacher for every three students. Each classroom has a certified special education teacher, a behavior technician, and an assistant. The charter school provides students with help in developing their social, communication, and academic skills.
‘Focus and Flexibility’ Emphasized
John J. Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California who is currently at work on a book about autism policy and politics in the United States, said, “The main ideas behind autism charters are focus and flexibility: The ability to concentrate on the specific needs of kids on the spectrum and to do so without the same constraints as general schools.”
However, charter schools serving autistic children are subject to many more state and federal regulations than many others, Pitney notes. The reauthorized Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), signed by President Bush in 2004, lays out requirements for funding and oversight of charter schools for children with special needs, including autism.
The Foundation School opened in August officially as a public charter. Previously, it was a private school for children with autism called the Treehouse Pediatric Center & Behavioral Services. Treehouse closed in 2009 due to financial problems, so the Autism Community Network stepped in with funding from the community to help those students.
School Fills Growing Need
ResponsiveEd says the school fills a great need. Texas has seen a 400 percent increase in autism diagnoses over the past 10 years. According to the Autism Community Network, one in 110 children is affected by autism and 1 in 70 boys born in the United States will be diagnosed with the condition.
“The Foundation School provides parents of children with autism an alternative to expensive private schools,” said Cook. “We are a tuition-free public school that can provide a small learning environment and lots of individual attention.”
At an October press conference at the Texas capitol, lawmakers on the state’s Senate Education Committee praised the school.
“We are very proud of this effort,” said State Senator Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio). “We are hoping it will be very successful. We know that there are still challenges, but that is what collaboration is all about.”
Since the public announcement of the school’s grand opening in October, the Foundation School for Autism has received dozens of calls from parents in San Antonio and surrounding areas. ResponsiveEd expects to open more classes and possibly a first grade class as demand for the school’s services increases.
Brooke Terry (email@example.com) writes from Texas and is a former education policy analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
Center for Education Reform: Special Needs Schools: http://www.edreform.com/charter_directory/SpecialtyProfile.cfm?&spec_id=4
John J. Pitney’s Autism Policy Blog: http://www.autismpolicyblog.com