Last Tuesday night, the Duval County School Board voted unanimously to build a laboratory school on Jacksonville’s west side for children with autism.
Parent reaction to the Oak Hill Autism Lab School proposal has ranged from skepticism to outrage. That’s no surprise, given Duval’s record in serving students with disabilities.
Even in schools where administrators and teachers understand best practices and want to implement them, they often can’t because they don’t have the resources.
And then there are those schools whose administrators would rather send disabled students somewhere else. They spend more energy, time, and district money defending their intransigence than they would serving the child.
Already stretched thin by the demands of their special-needs children, parents are drafted into a war: the fight to meet their children’s educational needs.
Getting it right when the child is young affects not only the child and the family, but also the community. Appropriate interventions for many children can mean the difference between a near-normal life, and one of dependence on government.
We as a nation have set high standards for how we educate children with disabilities: appropriately, individually, and with an eye for opportunities to interact with nondisabled peers.
But we have never ponied up the cash it takes to truly meet disabled students’ educational needs. Intensive, full-time, applied behavior analysis for young children with autism costs more than $40,000 per year. The public school allotment for a profoundly autistic child, however, covers only half that amount.
There is a shortage of licensed behavior analysts in our area, as well as a critical need for more intensive ABA-based training for paraprofessionals in the classroom. A coordinated effort to build an associate-level army of behavioral paraprofessionals would go a long way toward implementing many students’ educational programs.
Applied Behavior Analysis is not only the No. 1 science-based treatment for children with autism, it also assists in the educational treatment of children with other disabilities, as well as children living in troubled homes.
The Oak Hill laboratory school won’t be right for every child with autism. Duval Schools Superintendent Dr. Nikolai Vitti has promised that the district’s various autism “units,” –classrooms that reinforce students’ communication and social skills — won’t be diminished. He’s also mentioned creating opportunities for Oak Hill’s severely autistic students to interact with their peers, and vice versa.
Vitti also points out, correctly, that the intensive treatments for students on the severe end of the autism spectrum occur largely in non-inclusive environments. Nevertheless, a period of intensive treatment in an autism-only environment can help many students learn to thrive in inclusive settings. This was the case for this writer’s own child, after less than a year of ABA-based instruction in Jacksonville’s Jericho School.
Parents will need to hold Vitti’s feet to the fire. His leadership on the new academy for students with dyslexia, and on the Eugene Butler single-gender schools, speaks well so far for him as a leader who delivers.
Just as GRASP doesn’t dilute reading instruction for students at other schools, just as the arts magnet schools don’t preclude art and music from other schools, Oak Hill should not shift resources away from autism classrooms throughout the district.
The district can start by hiring a principal for Oak Hill who will bring the money and build the program the way Jackie Cornelius has done for Douglas Anderson School of the Arts.
It all sounds really good.
But even though we’re in Florida, let’s pretend we’re from Missouri.
Julie Delegal is a free-lance writer and regular contributor to Folio Weekly and Context Florida. She lives in Jacksonville. Column courtesy of Context Florida.