Eye on Education

‘School within a school’ helps Visalia students with autism

Nathan Llerenas, a fourth-grader who has autism watches a video on a projection screen during lunch at at Veva Blunt School in Visalia. The school has a program called Collaborative Autism Partnerships that allows children with autism to join the general school population in many activities.
Nathan Llerenas, a fourth-grader who has autism watches a video on a projection screen during lunch at at Veva Blunt School in Visalia. The school has a program called Collaborative Autism Partnerships that allows children with autism to join the general school population in many activities. ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

At Visalia Unified School District, students with autism are being educated under a new program that administrators say increases attention on language development, behavioral and social skills, and academics.

Instead of being placed in special day classes with students of varying intellectual challenges at schools throughout the district, they’re attending a single school and being taught in classrooms composed only of students on the autism spectrum.

About 60 students, preschool through sixth grade, are enrolled in the Collaborative Autism Partnerships program established two years ago at Veva Blunt Elementary.

“It’s a school within a school,” Assistant Superintendent Doug Bartsch said.

Despite being in a program specially designed for them, students are included in regular school activities as much as possible.

“They are in a separate program, but they can wear the Veva Blunt Rockets shirts with pride,” said Serena Rodriguez, a teacher on special assignment.

Students join general education students for lunch and assembly. Fourth- through sixth-graders also go to physical education and music class with general education students.

Some students participate in after-school activities such as track club and the Pro-Youth/Heart program.

Although currently an option only for elementary grades, a similar program will be launched this year at both a middle school and high school yet to be named.

Autism spectrum disorder involves difficulty in social interaction and communication, and many engage in repetitive behaviors such as hand flapping or rocking.

The district started Collaborative Autism Partnerships as part of an overall restructuring of special education instruction.

The program has five teachers, a speech therapist, school psychologist, occupational therapy assistant, instructional aides and a teacher on special assignment to coordinate services. The staff-to-student ratio is about 1-to-3.

Currently, each class has eight to 12 students. Typically, there is one teacher and two aides.

Student Kevin O’Leary, 10, a fourth-grader, has autism. At recess, he can be found at the playground swings. He also has the ability to quickly identify the year and make of cars on the road.

His mother, Mary Jarvis, said the program is helping her son progress.

“I like that my child is surrounded by peers that face similar struggles like he does,” she said. “They are mainstreamed into things like P.E. and music so they are exposed to typically developing children. It’s important that he’s surrounded by people who are positive examples.”

Administrators say they want the program to help students with autism move into regular education classrooms whenever possible.

“The goal is to transition as many as possible to their home school site,” said Michel Lambert, a Visalia Unified principal whose duties include overseeing the Collaborative Autism Partnerships program.

In the past year and a half, six students have gone to their home school and a less restrictive learning environment, he said.

That is in keeping with the the California Department of Education’s goal of breaking down walls between special needs and general education students, so those with special needs can be better educated and better integrated into the community.

“To the greatest extent possible…services are to be provided to students alongside their nondisabled peers,” states the department’s new report, “One System: Reforming Education to Serve All Students.”

One of the bright spots of the program is how well the students fit in with other students at Veva Blunt.

“It has helped all of the kids become more compassionate and develop an understanding of the uniqueness of every child,” Veva Blunt Principal Doug Cardoza said.

When parents of a child with autism see their student participate for the first time in a group school activity such as a musical performance, “they’re in tears,” Cardoza said.

During Autism Awareness Month, held in April, the teacher on special assignment who functions as the on-site program administrator visited classrooms to talk to general education students about autism.

One of the most common questions asked is “how should they react if the child doesn’t respond to them on the playground,” Rodriguez said.

She tells them that children with autism have challenges relating to others, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from reaching out in friendship.

“They should continue to say hi and not get offended when they don’t say hi,” Rodriguez said. “They’re still working on their social skills.”

Kayla Mezaramos, a fifth-grader, said she has gotten to know several of the students with autism.

“They’re real fun to play with,” she said.

Fourth-grader Nathan Llerenas, 10, is a student in the autism program.

“I like going on the computers” to find photos of “sharks, the ones with the scary teeth,” he said.

His father, Erick Llerenas, said he has noticed a difference in his son since he has been in the program.

“His talking, his academics, his understanding, his listening have all improved,” he said. “I credit most of his socialization from school. They teach him to have a conversation. I see it with us, with his cousins, with his family. He seems to talk more to adults. I’ve seen big improvements in his social skills.”

Lewis Griswold: (559) 441-6104, @fb_LewGriswold

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