Saturday, August 22, 2009

New Oregon school will serve students with autism, ADD

From The Oregonian:

A Portland woman who sees a void in Oregon education is starting a private school for students with neurological differences such as autism and attention deficit disorder.

Sameera Abdulaziz's metro-area school would serve a select student population and combine academics with therapeutic intervention to help students make decisions and learn how to interact with others.

Abdulaziz, 29, a doctoral student in clinical psychology, plans to open River City Academy in fall 2010. The school has nonprofit status.

The high numbers of students with autism and other disorders support a local presence, she said. There are few private schools in the metro area that cater to students with special needs and learning disabilities.

More than 7,000 Oregon students have autism, which is 10 times the amount a decade ago. Nearly 49,000 of Oregon's 88,000 schoolchildren in special education programs have learning disabilities or speech and language impairments. One in eight Oregon students receives special education services.

"I really want to help the students who are struggling in traditional schools," Abdulaziz said. During her master's program, she began thinking of opening a school for students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other learning disabilities, though the focus later changed.

Federal law requires school districts to serve students with special education needs, although the programs vary.

Some districts, including Portland and Beaverton, offer programs at select schools to serve certain students, including those with autism spectrum disorder, attention disorders or behavior disorders. Most districts strive to be inclusive so that special-needs students spend much of their day with the general student population.

River City Academy will be modeled after the Monarch School in Houston, which opened in 1998 and serves 100 students. Abdulaziz has signed a contract with Monarch School to replicate its program.

Abdulaziz found Monarch on the Internet when she was refining her school's focus. She said the program attracted her because it was a therapeutic model that could be offered during the day instead of as a boarding school. She also liked how "the children changed as people."

"Our main goal is how they have changed emotionally, how they have been able to create relationships with other students," Abdulaziz said.

Abdulaziz has never worked in a school. She earned her master's degree in education administration from Portland State University and is pursuing a doctorate degree with Walden University, an online program.

River City's tuition will be about $30,000 for early intervention students ages 4 to 6, with lower fees for older students. The school hopes to attract 20 or more students from early childhood to the high school level for its first year.

Students would have individualized learning plans and work at their own pace along with a staff psychologist and speech pathologist. Students could feel comfortable in the setting because they all have special education needs, Abdulaziz said.

Central goals of the curriculum are developing basic skills and decision-making techniques.

In public schools, the thought is to integrate students as much as possible into classes and with their peers, said Joshua Fritts, a Beaverton School District assistant special education director.

"By making sure from day one that there are interactions in the mainstream, kids are part of their community," Fritts said.

Patrick Maguire, director of Thomas Edison High School in Beaverton, said a new metro-area school would add choices. The 80-student private high school serves students with learning differences including dyslexia, attention deficit disorder and auditory processing disorders.

"We're turning away kids from our program," Maguire said. "We need more options."

Maguire added that one of his concerns about River City's initial size is that students wouldn't get enough social interaction with others their age.

River City is funded by private investors during its planning year. It is still raising money to send teachers, a psychologist and speech pathologist to Houston to train with the Monarch staff for a year.

School planners eventually want to add a diagnostic clinic to serve the community and create a Life Academy program for students to practice skills such as food preparation.

River City Academy "is not just going to be a school, but part of the community," Abdulaziz said.