Asperger's school offers students chance to thrive
By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on August 9, 2011 1:46 PM
A welcome sign hangs on the classroom door while Jacob Thorpe, 11, puts together a Lego car with his teacher, Belinda Smith, at The Asperger Connection School open house on Monday. The school in Pikeville will have 25 students in grades K-10.
PIKEVILLE -- The first day of school for Janet Grice's son has always been a struggle.
Kenny Wayne, 16, likes science and electronics, but academics are not the problem. It's finding a place where he will be comfortable with his surroundings. He seems to have found that spot at a new school opening this month in northern Wayne County.
On Monday afternoon, as he sat playing a video game in the fellowship hall of St. Joseph United Methodist Church, his mother could scarcely contain her joy.
"He's excited for the first time. He's excited to come to school," she said. "We're just overjoyed."
Kenny Wayne is one of 25 students enrolled in The Asperger Connection, which will serve children diagnosed on the high-functioning end of autism.
"He's finally going to feel he belongs," Ms. Grice said.
"Words can't even express ... a little boy walked in the door and he started talking to (Kenny). It was like that's the first time that's happened. This is the best thing that's happened to our family."
Open house was held Monday for the specialty school, where classes begin Aug. 15.
"I think the best part of it was to see the students' reactions on their faces," said Nancy Black, executive director of the program.
Parental input is crucial, she said, since "they know what will work for their child and what will not."
"We have had families that have had really sad stories coming out of schools where the child really couldn't function. I think the smaller classroom setting and digital technology will help them to learn at their own pace."
There will be one teacher for every five students.
The multi-age classrooms are divided by grade -- K-1, 2-4, 5-6 and 7-9. A teacher and assistant are assigned to each room, where students spend their day studying math, science, social studies and language arts and electives that include art, music, therapeutic horseback riding three days a week and health and physical education the other two days.
Principal Karin O'Donnell said the school will follow a standard course of study to earn accreditation, which takes two years.
Jill Baker moved to North Carolina six years ago for a high school teaching job, and now anticipates a "whole new opportunity" working with five students in kindergarten and first grade.
"I'm looking forward to seeing them grow and giving them a positive environment to learn in where they feel safe and can be themselves," she said. "I'm going to be excited to come to work every day."
A critical area those with Asperger's struggle with is social skills, which the school will also incorporate.
That's where Mick O'Donnell, a military veteran and retired educator, comes in. In addition to teaching social studies, he'll serve as a mentor of sorts.
"I'll be trying to project a role model to the kids so they can see how to act, where to do what, help them to realize that they're normal human beings," he said.
"Our main responsibility is to optimize these children's abilities -- that's what education is about," added Mrs. O'Donnell. "Much of their potential has been locked inside. ... We hope to develop a model that will help the unlocking of the Asperger potential, not just here but in other settings."
Rev. Tommy Haynes, pastor of St. Joseph, said his congregation is happy to offer the church annex to house the new school. Normally, it's been used for Sunday school and night meetings, he said.
"It works out well that they can have it weekdays and through the week," he said. "We're just glad that they're here and a lot of good is coming out of the space."
Ms. Black's vision comes as no surprise to Steve Smith, chairman of the school's board, who recalled her saying years ago, "I want to build a school." It was prompted in part, he says, by her own journey seeking similar services for son Daniel, now 14.
It's been rewarding watching it come to fruition, she says. From the church providing a location to 300 books donated by Johnston County Community College and another 500 books brought in from the community, Ms. Black said the potential for success is "tremendous."
"There's the federal grant money and then we have foundations interested in disabled children and the disadvantaged -- we have six children on full scholarships," she said. "There are those out there that want to help and we plan to expand to Wilmington as soon as next school year."
Perhaps the biggest boost came last week from one of autism's most prominent faces -- Temple Grandin, herself a successful professor in Colorado whose life was portrayed in an Emmy-winning HBO biography.
"I met her in February at UNC-Wilmington and asked her to look at our website," Ms. Black said. "Then last week I contacted her and she said, 'I would be delighted to come to your school.'
"What an amazing thing. It validates the fact that we're the only school in the country that's for Asperger's, that we're focusing specifically on the Asperger child and their brilliance."