Charter School for Autism?

Charter School for Autism?

County Program Lacking, Say Parents

Several years ago, someone told Tom Urban about the ABA, or Applied Behavior Analysis, program and how effective it has been as a teaching method for children with autism. Fairfax County Public Schools, however, did not offer the program.

So four or five years ago, in part because of the lack of the ABA program, Urban's son began attending school in a nearby county where his ex-wife lives and today, as a 9-year-old, Urban's son is clinically no longer on the autism spectrum.

Now the Mount Vernon resident wants to return the favor paid to him by making it easier for other families to have access to an ABA program.

"Once upon a time, someone did this for me. There was a wonderful woman who told us about ABA. I would have never known about it if it wasn't for her. The school system didn't tell us about it," Urban said.

P.A.C.E., Parents for Autistic Children's Education, of which Urban is a member, is preparing an application seeking to become Fairfax County's first charter school. If approved, the school would provide a year-round program for students with autism beginning in prekindergarten and possibly extending through sixth grade.

"The school system came out with a new program and we've found it wanting," said Randolph Nicklas, who is heading P.A.C.E.'s efforts for the charter school. "An independent audit shows the county still has a long way to go [with it's autism program], so we've concluded we have to invoke a charter school."

THE SCHOOL SYSTEM did pilot the ABA program from 1998-2002, however, in fiscal year 2003 the pilot money ran out and in its place Fairfax County Public Schools created its own program, which incorporates what staff felt were the strengths of ABA as well as the school system's other two existing autism programs — preschool reduced-ratio and preschool class-based, formerly know as the noncategorical program.

Of the three programs, ABA was the only one that provided one-on-one attention for the students. Under the pilot, which served 10 children, classes had five students, a teacher and a teacher's aide for each student. The children learned new skills — in areas of communication, social interaction, behavior and cognition — through a series of drills and rewards.

The reduced-ratio program also had classes limited to five students, but had three instructors including the teacher, and also used structured drills and rewards. The preschool class-based program was geared toward students with multiple disabilities and the lessons were based on the individual child's needs as determined by an evaluation team.

It was the lack of funding that did in the ABA program rather than results, which parents say is not fair. Urban said studies have shown the ABA method has worked for 40 to 50 percent of the children enrolled in the program.

"The administration did not see fit to support it," said Nicklas, a Reston resident. "Ask someone how much they spend on cell phones and Blackberry. They are nice to have, but why does the school system have to pay for them?"

Nicklas' 5-year-old son has autism and is enrolled in a private home program. He also has two other children enrolled in the county schools. Nicklas, also a product of a public-school education, said he wants to see the charter school become a reality for all the parents who cannot afford a private program.

"It's just a desire I have to see the county stop wasting money on what doesn't work, especially when we know what does work," Nicklas said.

P.A.C.E. MEMBERS contend the charter school is needed because school staff is not properly trained or evaluated, do not employ the proper teacher-to-student ratio, and do not use methods, such as ABA, which have been backed by scientific studies.

An external evaluation of the county's current autistic program conducted by Dr. Jane Barbin, a licensed psychologist, and issued Dec. 5, included several recommendations regarding the instructional format, the length of the program, behavioral teaching strategies, reinforcement strategies, activity schedules, curriculum, consultative program support, staff development and data collection. Some of Barbin's conclusions support P.A.C.E.'s assertions, including the value of ABA and the need for a year-round program.

"Students should be provided more intensive, behaviorally-based instruction throughout the day, therefore use of ABA for more than the stated 15 hours per week would be important," Barbin's report concluded.

Furthermore, the report said the school system should give consideration to implementing a year-round program "so that student regression is kept to a minimum."

Nicklas said that under the school system's policy P.A.C.E. has until July 1 to submit its application and the School Board has until Dec. 1 to decide whether or not to grant the charter. If all goes as planned, Nicklas said the school could be up and running sometime between March and June 2004.

As stated by law, P.A.C.E. is looking to the school system to help find space for the facility and some funding. The organization also plans to pursue grants and private funding. The charter school's employees would be county school employees, but P.A.C.E. would have a say in the teachers' qualifications and evaluations. If approved, the school would be the first special education charter school in the state, said Nicklas.