PARMA, Ohio — For more than a year, the Parma City School District has been exploring how to better serve special education students.
That work recently culminated with the district announcing plans to open the A.C.E.S. (Accept, Champion, Educate and Support) Center for Education targeting children with autism.
The center will open in the 2020-2021 school year at Parma Senior High School.
“After introducing this idea in early 2019, we realized from further discussions — especially from community feedback — more work was needed in terms of actually building a program,” Superintendent Charles Smialek said.
“Its purpose is to better meet the needs of students with autism, particularly using district resources instead of outsourcing the education.
“We appointed (Pleasant Valley Elementary School psychologist) Caitlin Sabo as an interim director to grow the program,” he said. “She has a lot of expertise in this area in what students with autism really need and how they best learn. Over the last year, she studied other models, did a lot of research and drew upon her own expertise to really put details into what this will look like.”
The result is A.C.E.S. Center for Education, which is getting off the ground serving K-5 students who have a medical and educational primary diagnosis of autism. The program is designed to provide a highly individualized, therapeutic-based program.
Currently, the district is asking parents to complete an A.C.E.S. survey to gauge community interest.
“An important consideration is that we can’t obviously spell everything out because much of what we will be able to offer will be based upon students’ IEP (Individual Education Program), which comes through traditional IEP meetings and working with families,” Smialek said. “But, at least we’re providing a framework to do that.
“At this point now, we’ve identified the location, we’ve looked at the design for the physical space and we recently had a posting for the full-time director. We’re really incrementally growing toward an opening.
“That’s exciting, because the whole intent of the program is to be able to meet students’ needs in the district,” he said.
The district plans to announce the full-time director soon, with Sabo also in the running as an applicant.
While on the surface the impetus for the program is tied to Parma City Schools currently having more than two dozen pupils with designated disabilities receiving their education outside the district — at a cost to taxpayers of more than $2 million annually in tuition payments and transportation expenses — Smialek said there’s more to the picture.
“In all candor, I personally approached it as largely a financial savings decision, which was 100 percent the wrong way to approach this,” Smialek said. “Certainly, the fiscal standpoint will always be important, and there will be a savings here, but this cannot just be about finances. This has to be about what’s the best for students.
“Given the fact we’ve now invested a year in building the program, we’re confident in having the right staff, mindset and framework.
“We’re building a program that will better these students’ educational experiences. Also, any of the students who will be in this program will feel a real source of connection to the district and to their peer group. That’s a critical element.”
Going into the opening of the A.C.E.S. Center for Education, the superintendent acknowledged that the expectation is that it will start very small, with perhaps less than a dozen students.
Part of that is perhaps tied to parents of autistic children having not-so-pleasant previous experiences with the district.
“We’re evolving to better meet student needs,” Smialek said. “If families may have had a negative experience, we hope they’ll understand this is truly one that will be tailored to their needs and the child’s needs. This is essentially a startup, which gives us a great opportunity to truly build a program around individual needs.
“Also, it’s important that we don’t force this program into any family’s decision in terms of what an IEP meeting looks like. We want there to be a comfort level with this, so we know that starting small will build confidence in our stakeholders that we have the right staff, we have the right mindset and the right framework in place to advance education.”
Read more news from the Parma Sun Post.
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