05/29/11 — New Asperger's school captures interest, funds

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New Asperger's school captures interest, funds

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on May 29, 2011 1:50 AM

As soon as it was made public that Wayne County will have a new school for children with Asperger's syndrome, Nancy Black was flooded with phone calls and e-mails from interested families.

She said she has also been approached to receive federal funding to support the school, which will open Aug. 15. Its initial home will be at St. Joseph United Methodist Church in Pikeville.

The Asperger Connection will serve 40 students who have been diagnosed with Asperger's, on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. There will be 10 students in each blended classroom -- K-2, grades 3-5, 6-8 and 9-10. After the first two years, grades 11 and 12 will be added.

At the outset, Ms. Black, executive director of the program, said it would serve a five-county region, with plans to duplicate the prototype in Wilson in 2012, Raleigh in 2013, Charlotte in 2014 and then launch locations outside the state.

If the response so far is any indication, there will be no problem filling spaces.

"The whole ninth and 10th-grade class is already full," she said earlier this week. "I had really thought we would be pulling from a five-county area but it's going to be mostly Wayne County.

"I haven't been able to go to the other counties because I'm holding so many spaces for Wayne County (families)."

Ms. Black recently learned the school has been awarded a one-year $26,000 Skills 4 America grant from ACT Today (Autism Care and Treatment Today) and the Center for Autism and Related Disorders.

The grant will provide teacher training in the principles and procedures of applied behavior analysis necessary for the treatment of children with autism. It will also allow for the complete assessment of the child, his learning style, fine and gross motor skills and social skills.

"Everything is research-based," Ms. Black said. "Everything goes back to skills for Asperger's for us to help them better understand how to educate children with Asperger's."

One reason the school might be a good candidate for some of the federal grant money is because little has been done regarding use of technology programs to teach Asperger's students, she said.

"The federal government is very interested in that," she said. "We're also targeting technology-based companies (for funding)."

While there appears to be great potential for supplemental funding for the school itself, one of the challenges will be families unable to afford tuition to the private school.

Ms. Black said she hopes to eventually establish a scholarship fund to create a more diverse population of students, and has already begun developing contacts in the local business community toward that end.

Another glitch has been having to turn away families whose child has not been specifically diagnosed with Asperger's, Ms. Black said. To counter that, she has partnered with Goldsboro Pediatrics and Dr. Joanne Villei, a psychologist there who has agreed to help with the diagnosis process.

While the program targets Asperger's, there is still help, and hope, for families of other disorders on the autism spectrum, Ms. Black said.

"What we're going to do in the fall is bring them to Conversations, which we will have at the school, to broaden their social communication skills and work on gross motor skills," she said.

Conversations is a social skills class for teens with high-functioning autism, introduced locally in 2009.

"From that, maybe we will be able to identify some with Asperger's or wrap our arms around children that need help," she said.

Another option will be monthly symposiums, which will also be open to the public and address issues specific to family life for children with Asperger's. Dates and times will be announced on the website, www.theaspergerconnectionschool.com, and in the newspaper.

The first symposium will be held at the school on Aug. 30 at 7 p.m. and will feature Ms. Black speaking on individual education plan goals and family schedules.

"I think it's timely for those who'll be determining they can't come to the school for whatever reason and will need to advocate for their child (in public school)," she said.

In the meantime, over the summer staff and teachers will undergo additional training as the grand opening, Aug. 8, nears.

The prospects of being the nation's first specifically targeted Asperger's school looms large, Ms. Black says. But only because of its potential.

"I think there's a great need out there," she said. "We just don't know how big the need is yet. We don't know how many children have it and don't have it."