Karen Berry, a parent at Capstone, was almost out of options before she found the school.
“When my son wasn’t making progress in the school district, Capstone was never mentioned,” she said. “He was one of 20-something students. The teacher thought nothing was wrong with him.”
Pre-Kindergarten classes are just an option, a choice – albeit a great choice, for parents who are starting to plan their children’s educational career. Children who face certain obstacles, whether it is a mental or physical handicap, need all the preparation they can get.
At Capstone Academy, children are at a great advantage with one-on-one teaching in a comfortable and friendly atmosphere. Capstone offers Early Intervention instruction with speech, occupational and physical therapies. Classes have no more than 14 students, with a Florida certified teacher and teacher’s assistant. All Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten (VPK) classes are free through the state’s Early Learning Coalition. There is one class for children without disabilities, although most of the Capstone student body has sensory delays.
“We’re like a hidden jewel,” said Principal Nancy Wolfe.
Wolfe has been with Capstone for two years trying to keep that jewel shiny. She’s more than a principal. She cleans up, fixes toilets and even cleans up the backyard of the school.
“She’s one of our assets,” said Trudy O’Brien.
BUILDING A BRIDGE
O’Brien is the assistant to the President/CEO at United Cerebral Palsy of Northwest Florida. Capstone, a public charter school, is owned by UCP. After trying after-school programs for students with disabilities, the non-profit decided to open a school geared toward early intervention services.
“There was a gap in our services,” O’Brien said. “We wanted to build a bridge.”
Resources for parents of children with disabilities such as autism are few and far between. And once children enter elementary school, they are likely to slip between the cracks because teachers are severely outnumbered.
“There are too many children to focus on without the one child with autism,” O’Brien said.
Melanie Wales’ son was one of those students who wasn’t getting the attention he needed.
“Jake was one of ten,” she said. “He would just play by himself. Now, he’s forced to interact.”
United Cerebral Palsy of Northwest Florida acts a “fairy godmother” for the charter school by supplementing whatever funds the school needs. Capstone also receives funding from the Escambia County School District.
Through UCP, Capstone is constantly expanding to meet the needs of children.
“I think we had three children in the first semester,” O’Brien said. “Within three or four years, we had to add a wing to the building.”
The school uses activity-based instruction to keep the students engaged—after all they are four-year-olds. Therapists come to the children in the classroom to work with them alongside the other students, a “push-in model” Wolfe called it.
“The bar is a lot higher,” said Wales. “My son is expected to work. He’s having more fun than at home.”
In one room, Dr. Robyn Sandfort, a behavioral analyst, sits on the floor with one of the students. Sandfort keeps close tabs on the children, sending detailed reports home to parents. Once a month, teachers meet using the Verbal Behavior
Milestones Assessment and Placement Program (VB-MAPP). The VB-MAPP is a curriculum guide and skill tracking system for children with autism.
“They’re good at keeping you in the loop,” said Wales. “You can never give too much information.”
SMALL STEPS TOWARD PROGRESS
Children are progressing at Capstone. It may be hard for the average parent to notice, but each accomplishment, big or small, is celebrated at the school.
“Some of these kids were not talking six months ago,” Wolfe said in a room of busy children.
“My son was non-verbal,” said Susan Babcock. “Now, he’s a lot more interested and more able to handle his behavior.”
Her son, Dolon, has discovered his artistic talent.
“We love to see Dolon’s art,” Wolfe said.
Wolfe says most of the school’s funds go toward staffing. The teacher to child ratio is the students’ greatest benefit. Games, toys and school supplies usually come from parent contributions.
But parents contribute far more than paper towels and crayons. They are extremely active in their children’s lives and are grateful that Capstone cares about their children as much as they do.
“I feel like they bring a lot to the table,” said Wales. “They bring ideas and say ‘Have you thought about trying this…’”
Parents easily talk about how Capstone has brought out the best in the children, but when asked about leaving Capstone for elementary school, a quiet enters the room.
“It’s scary to think about leaving,” said Sonya Hollingsworth. “UCP needs to make it longer.”
“Especially with Florida dropping the No Child Left Behind Act,” said Berry. “At age six, I had to label my son autistic and my oldest one has severe ADHD. My biggest concern is that it may hinder him. The neurologist didn’t want to label him.”
The Florida Board of Education made changes in late February to the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test adding the grades of students with disabilities to the overall grade of the school. These new FCAT guidelines have raised additional concerns about placing these children in the elementary schools.
“It’s just ludicrous,” said Wolfe.
Parents worry that the progress made at Capstone will be lost when their children enter kindergarten and on.
“My kid doesn’t need to be in a typical class,” Wales said. “He needs what he gets here. He got group speech therapy and occupational therapy through the district, but some groups will have four or five kids in it.”
At Capstone, students are treated with respect by teachers and therapists who understand them.
“I know they’re taking care of issues, and meltdowns are being handled properly,” Berry said.
“You can talk to the teachers and warn them and say ‘This isn’t a good day,’” Hollingsworth added.
As autism becomes a hot topic, it’s also a wake-up call for school districts to be better equipped to educate all children under all circumstances. As one mom put it, one child with autism can be like handling three “normal” children. With some classrooms already packed with students, Capstone graduates have even less of a chance to become social and active.
“My son is non-verbal,” Wales said. “My biggest concern is that if someone mistreats him, he can’t tell me.”
Parents have concerns beyond school.
“I just want my child to eventually be a typical child,” Hollingsworth said. “It may not happen, but we will work at it everyday.”
Until then, parents are happy they found Capstone. The charter school also offers after-school and summer programs for children with special needs from ages three to 18.
“Everybody knows your kid’s name,” Hollingsworth said. “It was the first school that I looked at and I was like ‘Done.’”
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