Mom's dream: a school for autistic kids

A teacher, who is also the parent of two autistic children, is determined to open a school for special-needs students.

Published July 14, 2006

SPRING HILL - It doesn't look like a school yet.

Tucked into a Kass Circle storefront near Michelle's Elbow Room restaurant and Pizzaz Hair Design, the Golden Branch Academy still lacks furniture and just got a phone connection.

But if Lourdes Morales' dream becomes a reality, by late August, that storefront will be home to a new educational option for children with special needs in grades 4-12.

Morales, who has 15 years' experience teaching reading and English as a second language at Deltona Elementary and Farnell Middle schools in Hillsborough County, hopes to serve up to 30 students in the four-room suite of offices.

She saw the need for a private alternative while raising her own children, 12-year-old Luis and 15-year-old Laura, both of whom have been diagnosed with autism. Prone to outbursts and obsessive behavior, both needed consistency and individualized attention they couldn't find in public schools, she said.

"Once they get into middle school, they just get lost," she said, referring to some special-needs children. "I've met with parents in the area and the need is great."

Morales hopes eventually to serve up to 30 elementary, middle and high school students with autism-spectrum, anxiety, or attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorders, as well as gifted and ESOL students, in three rooms at the school. For now, she won't be accepting students who need the intensive support of a one-to-one aide.

Each of those groups of eight to 10 students will have its own teacher and will work out of its own cubicle so the students get the individual attention they need, she said.

That's the dream.

But between now and late August, Morales faces a small mountain of tasks. There are permits to secure, including a special use zoning permit and code approval from the fire department. The Health Department hasn't returned her calls, and the Internal Revenue Service must still approve her application for nonprofit status.

Even buying classroom furniture poses a challenge, when the students are autistic children who might stop functioning if something's amiss.

"Some students are very sensitive to touch," Morales said. "We have other students who focus on fans. We just have to be sensitive to all these things, and desensitize them. That's why we want to keep our school small."

Most of all, she needs enough students to persuade her teachers to leave their regular jobs in the public schools and join the venture. So far, four families, including Morales', have committed to send their children this fall.

"Right now it will just be one teacher," Morales said. "If we have enough students, we will eventually have three teachers and other assistants."

By next year, when the school registers with the state's limited voucher program, some students might qualify for McKay Scholarships for children with disabilities, she said.

But until then, families will have to come up with $5,800 in tuition and a $250 registration fee, Morales said.

She's been bankrolling the school's startup with her own savings, after spending more than three years planning and visiting similar programs. A friend, karate teacher Jim Pelczar, is helping to raise money as her vice president for finance.

"We are looking for donations," Morales added.

Ana Raffeo, a 22-year-veteran special education teacher at Farnell who serves as Morales' vice president for curriculum, said many special-needs students require individual attention. The challenge for Golden Branch will be to recruit students whose needs it can meet, she said.

"I have had years when I had a student who was autistic or a severe head-banger, where I had to have an aide," Raffeo said. "It depends on the needs of the individual child."

But she said Morales has done all the right things to make the school a success.

"She's got all the right resources; she's been planning this for years," Raffeo said. "I'm sure she can do it."

For information on the academy, call (352) 684-0343.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.