After being told their 2-year-old autistic son could never be potty-trained, Annette Hickey and her husband refused to accept that as his future.
The couple spent $160,000 a year on early intervention treatment and moved their family from Chicago to Minnesota so they were closer to his school.
Today, he is in second grade at The Swain School and doesn't realize he was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, Hickey said today as she announced plans to open the Pennsylvania Autism Charter School.
Charter schools are free, public schools funded by taxpayer dollars funneled from a student's home district.
Hickey is partnering with her stepfather, Tom Lubben, who is experienced at creating charter schools. Lubben is the founder and former superintendent of theLehigh Valley Charter High School for the Arts in Bethlehem and he recently helped create the Arts Academy Charter School in Salisbury Township.
"I have shifted my focus from arts to autism for a very special reason," Lubben said, referencing his grandson, during today's announcement outside Bethlehem City Hall.
Organizers are eying a former elementary school in lower Berks County, close to Allentown, but they declined to say exactly where prior to signing a lease and submitting the charter to the school district.
Lubben predicted the school will draw children from across the region and state, saying it would be the first of its kind.
"This is not just a general special education school," Lubben said.
If approved, the school would open in September 2014 and enroll about 45 children ages 3 1/2 to 8. The maximum enrollment would be 75 students.
"We want to make sure we do justice to the children," Hickey said.
To enroll, a child would need an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis through a doctor or have an Individualized Education Plan drawn up by his or her home school district.
Charter organizers indicated state early intervention funding that typically goes to intermediate units could be diverted to the charter. Pennsylvania Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller could not immediately confirm this will be possible.
Once a student reaches school age, the child's home school would pay the charter tuition, which varies from district to district and is determined by a state formula.
The Pennsylvania Autism Charter School would also accept medical insurance and have someone on staff to help parents coordinate.
Toddlers with developmental delays and other disabilities are entitled to free early intervention services paid for by the state through contracts with other agencies.
Typically, it is an intermediate unit or a school district that offers the services, said Charlene Brennan, executive director of Colonial Intermediate Unit 20.
School districts only must pay to transport early intervention students, she said.
Locally, IU 20 provides autism services for about 245 students from its member districts and early intervention for 1,500 students a year, Brennan said.
Bethlehem Area School District Superintendent Joseph Roy said IU 20 provide excellent early intervention programs and offers school-based autism classrooms in line with the special education tenets of inclusion and keeping students in the least-restrictive environment.
"I think there are a range of services the school districts and intermediate units provide for students with autism, extensive services," Roy said. "So, I don't know what new the charter school would bring to the table."
Unique approach touted
The goal of the proposed charter is to return children to a regular classroom as soon as they are ready, Hickey said.
IU 20 uses applied behavioral analysis in its autism program and most of the staff are certified behavioral specialists, who are overseen by certified mental health clinicians with master's degrees, Brennan said. But it doesn't use Montessori methods.
The charter school would feature a people-intensive effort with a maximum ratio of three students to one teacher. Many of the teachers would be fresh out of school interested in gaining their therapy certification and seeking practical hours to earn their higher-ed degree, Hickey said.
Applied behavioral analysis uses what is known as discrete trial teaching, where skills are broken down into basic steps that are used to reward and reinforce student behavior, Hickey said. It's a way children on the spectrum can learn social, language, behavior and emotional skills intensively, she said.
Montessori classrooms mix age groups, use natural materials and emphasize helping children develop creativity and critical thinking. The founder, Maria Montessori, earned acclaim first for her unprecedented success working with poor children in a slum, Hickey said.
Applied behavioral analysis and the classroom philosophy fit well together, Hickey said. The school would also focus on parent education and involvement. To ease parental stress, organizers are interested in offering extra space up to doctors and physical or occupational therapists to lease. That way parents wouldn't have to shuffle children to a far-flung doctor's appointment after school, Lubben said.
Organizers hope to submit their charter-application within the next two months.