10/08/13 — A place of their own

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A place of their own

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on October 8, 2013 1:46 PM

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Jacob Thorpe, 14, uses a straw to blow paint onto an art project at New Independence Academy. The academy opened in August in the fellowship hall of Rosewood Worship Center to serve high-functioning autistic students.

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Tina Buck helps Nick Wesenberg, 9, with an art project. Students used straws to apply paint to paper after studying wind and weather all week.

A new school for high-functioning children with autism has recently opened and is appropriately named -- New Independence Academy.

Housed in the fellowship hall of Rosewood Worship Center, its director, Debbie Outland, said the population served requires a unique approach.

For those on the autistic spectrum, she said, the bigger concerns are less about academics and more about socialization and sensory issues.

"We're working on a lot of cooperation and respect of each other, and that's driving our social skills right now," she said. "They're not used to working in groups.

"They do things in their classes, but we do a lot of group stuff. Our true vision, and we stress this to our students constantly, our job is to make them independent adults."

The school accepts students in kindergarten through 11th grade. Once it has been open for two years and is officially accredited, though, it will add 12th grade, Ms. Outland said.

"We can serve them until their 21st birthday because they're special needs," she said.

At present, the school has 15 students, ages 7-18.

The academy offers all the core curriculum as well as several electives, including Spanish, health and physical education. It serves five counties and follows a calendar similar to that of the public schools.

"We're under the auspices of the N.C. Department of Public Instruction for non-public schools," she said. "It has a lot fewer restrictions than the public schools."

The process to form a new school actually began in the spring, when five educators and 12 parents banded together to lay the groundwork.

"I started working on this about the middle of June and spent a good part of the summer researching and looking for teachers," Ms. Outland said.

Cassandra Campbell was the first educator hired, to work with the high school students. The former English-as-a-Second-Language and Spanish teacher had just retired in June. She has a master's degree in education and also a 7-year-old autistic son.

But it was her answer to one question that convinced Ms. Outland she was the right candidate for the job.

"When I asked why do you feel like you really want to do this, she shared how she had grown up in California and was visually impaired. She had gone down the wrong road, but then a teacher in sixth or seventh grade told her she could do anything, it completely changed her life and she wants to be that kind of teacher," she said.

Ms. Outland also hired Veronica Miller, another recent retiree from the profession who taught special education for 23 years and ESL for seven, to work with K-8.

"If we could get two or three more students, we would probably go ahead and hire another teacher for the younger students," she said.

Because of the clientele served, the program is structured but also incorporates a lot of flexibility. Once a month students go on a field trip. They also have a partnership with Stepping Stone stables, a therapeutic horseback riding program, and go swimming at the YMCA.

There is little homework but like many schools today, it features a large online component and in addition to the state's common curriculum administers student achievement tests.

And while it features a "calming room" for students to take a break from the action, Ms. Outland said so far they have not used it at all.

The atmosphere of "collaborate learning" is proving to be a positive one for the students, she said.

"They're less stressed," she said. "They don't like to be absent.

"I'm ecstatic. It's just been absolutely amazing, especially with the teachers that I was able to find."

Parents also volunteer in the board-run school and are willing to pay the "substantial" tuition, she said.

For more information on the program, the website is www.newindependence.org, or call 919-288-2429.