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School Focuses on Students with Disabilities

Because of the efforts of Sue Gross and Alan El Tagi, parents of students with developmental disabilities have hope for their children — they also have someplace to send them to school.

Alternative Paths Training School is an educational/vocational program for students ages 6-22 with developmental disabilities. It has been operating a pilot program in the Springfield area for the past two years; it will relocate to the Mount Vernon area this fall.

“This [center] is often the last stop before a residential program,” Gross said.

El Tagi agreed, saying, “We get kids from other alternative programs that can’t serve them.”

Michelle Menendez knows this all too well. Her 13-year-old son, Paul, is severely retarded and kept getting kicked out of the Loudoun County middle school program that he was in.

“They kept sending him home sick even though he wasn’t,” Menendez said.

She kept asking the county to put her son in private placement and they finally agreed. She started looking around and settled on this new school.

“I was tickled with this one. It’s new and they [Gross and El Tagi] are very motivated. They listen to all my concerns,” Menendez said.

Paul is doing much better in his new school, and even though he is not toilet trained, they feel no need to send him home.

“They [the county school] were just a glorified baby-sitter. He seems to be doing much better now; they are working with him on all kind of skills. He’s making tremendous progress,” Menendez said. “They have their hands full, but they treat it eagerly.”

WHEN ALTERNATIVE PATH’S training program opens in their new location, they will be able to handle up to 32 students with a variety of behavior and learning disorders. Gross said that they are considered a contract school in that the counties involved provide some funding, but the overall funding and school management is private.

Gross and El Tagi first met when they worked together at Northern Virginia Training Center. El Tagi said that he was introduced to the program by a friend.

“I started as a volunteer and then it just snowballed,” said El Tagi, who soon became a full-time staff person. “I majored in political science, but quickly shifted to education.”

Gross also worked at Phillips School for several years. Both she and El Tagi counseled parents with disabled children, and they began to see a need for educational services for the behaviorally challenged.

The thought occurred to them that maybe they could do something to help more. They started doing research and getting licenses; the pilot program opened in May, 2002. The pilot program has gone well, but El Tagi said that they started looking for another location about 18 months ago. After talking to about 40 agents, they got lucky.

“I got a call from an agent saying that a space had just opened up in the back of the building where The Agape Christian Academy is located,” said El Tagi, who immediately went to look at the space.

WHAT HE FOUND was a shell — no walls or rooms, but a very large space. They signed a lease and set about hiring contractors to transform the space into a school. In addition to the large classrooms, there will be a motor room, vocational training room and a sensory integration room. Gross said that the latter would be equipped with aquariums and such, and would serve as a place for students to unwind.

“What’s often compromised with these students is the ability to self-regulate. They will have sensory and tactile opportunities which will help them to decompress,” Gross said. “With a little creativity and professional expertise, we are transforming the school into a wonderful learning environment.”

While the two receive some funding from the participating counties (Loudoun, Fairfax, Alexandria and Arlington), Gross and El Tagi are putting much of their own money into this project. It is truly a labor of love. Some fundraising has been done. A golf tournament that was held earlier this year raised more than $20,000. Most of that money is going towards building a handicapped ramp, which comes with a price tag of just about that amount.

“It’s our mission — and our passion,” said Gross and El Tagi, who both serve as program directors of the program.

GROSS SAID THAT her family has been very supportive of her need to use family resources, both in terms of finances and time. Her daughter, Pam, is so supportive that she started helping to promote her mother’s school last year. Already, she has been to several of the Mount Vernon-Lee Chamber of Commerce meetings talking about the new program.

"I like to say I’ve been with the organization since September, but I have been with my mother for 23 years. Watching this dream grow into a reality has been something my family has done for a while. I have always known my mother has been passionate about what she did, but now that I am raising awareness and money for the program, some of that passion has transferred over to me, helping her reach her goals.

“It [the job] has come with many struggles. I feel like we are the best kept secret around, and my job is to tell everyone who we are and why we are here. Some of my past assignments were grant-writing and the wonderful golf tournament where the members of the community really came together to help us raise over $10,000 for our wheelchair ramp. It is my hope that our casino Night and Silent Auction coming up on Oct. 14 at Top of The Town in Crystal City, will bring a larger crowd and help us support our building fund.

“In the future I will be going to local county and city governments and really lobbying for their support as it is their students we serve. My ultimate goal is to help create a program that is not limited by space or money, so that our children can truly benefit from Sue and Al's hard work and dedication,” her daughter said.

“This has been an unbelievable journey,” Gross said.