tampabay.com

School plan concerns officials

They seek assurances about an autism program chartered in Hillsborough County.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
Published March 7, 2007


LAND O'LAKES - Pasco County is poised to get a new charter school this fall that will focus on students with autism.

The school, set to open at a former church site in Zephyrhills, will operate as a satellite campus of a state-funded autism center chartered by the Hillsborough County School District.

That's causing some consternation among Pasco County school officials.

"I think it's important that we help our autistic children the best we can," superintendent Heather Fiorentino told the School Board on Tuesday. "But I have concerns over the way it is happening.

Specifically, Fiorentino worried about whether future charter schools might use this example as a precedent to gain approval in another county and then come into Pasco to do business, without local oversight.

"Other counties are not supposed to cross the boundary to do this," she said. "I just think there might be some legal ramifications."

The Hillsborough charter, authorized and funded by the Legislature, also would serve Pinellas, Polk, Manatee and Sarasota counties. The area has one of the highest incidences of autism in Florida.

Pasco has about 300 children who qualify for autism services. Many would remain in the public schools, which offers an array of programs for them. The new charter school plans to debut with 200 seats in the six counties, eventually rising to 600 seats.

The Hillsborough official who oversees charter schools said her district is working this week to explain the setup to each of the five counties where Educational Services of America, which will operate the autism center, wants to open satellites. If the local districts do not formally approve, Hillsborough will not extend the charter to them.

"We are not authorized to, nor would we dream of insulting our neighbors by authorizing and opening a charter school in their district," said Anne Chatfield, Hillsborough's director of nontraditional programs.

She vouched for the program's quality, though, saying it has won high marks from many evaluators. "Like our neighbors, we are here for the good of the children," Chatfield said.

Educational Services of America chief executive Mark Claypool said he regretted any political snags in the process. He had planned to run the charter through Florida's new state-level chartering commission, but was "courted" by Hillsborough to apply there.

"They agreed verbally that they would manage the relationship with the other counties," Claypool said. "They just told us to go about preparing to take care of the kids."

Pasco officials are scheduled to meet with their Hillsborough counterparts today.

"We knew the autism center for excellence was being established. We were not aware they wanted to do the satellite campuses in other counties," said Melissa Musselwhite, Pasco supervisor of exceptional student education. "Now we as a school district are going to investigate what's involved."

She acknowledged that the needs of children with autism are great. Some take gifted education in the regular classroom, while others are educated separately in self-contained classrooms.

Musselwhite did not know what the new center would provide that differs from what the district offers.

Claypool said the program will focus on three areas, using research-based methods that have been accepted for years as most effective.

The Spectrum section will help students with moderate to severe cases of autism. The College Living Prep, for high-functioning teens, will teach how to succeed more independently. College Living Experience, which will not start immediately, will support those students who plan to go to community college.

Claypool did not know how many students might attend each campus, or the exact services each will provide. Much will depend upon the abilities and needs of the students who enroll. Having many sites is helpful, he explained, because it can limit the amount of travel the students must endure.

"Generally, these kids do not travel well," he said.

About one of every 150 children born in the United States has some form of autism, a disorder that affects communication, social interaction and behavior.

Claypool said he hated that the Pasco district was caught off-guard. "I hope the school will be so great that everybody's concerns will be allayed quickly."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com 813 909-4614 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4614. For more education news, visit The Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

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For information about the Florida Autism Center of Excellence, call toll-free 1-866-951-3223 or visit www.esa-education.com.