PHOENIX – Preschoolers have frolicked on the playground and in the classroom at the Community School campus at Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center in downtown Phoenix for the past nine years.
Rachel McIntosh, senior clinical manager and school director, said it was an unique model in that, “There are six children that have a diagnosis of autism within each of the classrooms and along side those six children that have a diagnosis are between six to 10 children that do not have a diagnosis.”
That model has worked so well, another has opened in Tempe, in the St. James Episcopal Church campus near Rural and Warner roads.
It opened earlier this year with a group of four children, all around 2.
“We’ll be able to open another classroom, and a third in the following year,” McIntosh said.
The goal in four years is to serve four dozen 2-4 year-olds in three classrooms each year — 18 of those will be autistic — and maintain the mix of student with autism and without.
“We have very low student-teacher ratios,” McIntosh said.
“The teachers are highly trained, and the max numer of students per classroom is 16,” and all the children have tailored lesson plans, she said.
Ari Diaz is a parent of two students who fell in love with the program and now works as the family coordinator.
Neither of her sons have autism but she and her husband chose Community School not only because her kids would have personalized lesson plans with highly trained teachers, but also because “We wanted to raise our children in an environment that is socially aware and focuses on equity.”
Checking in on one of the classes, four students sit around a child-size table, as the teacher asks them, “What’s the letter of the day?” Several shout, “U!”
Meanwhile, another child patiently types out his answer on a modified iPad.
The boy Gavin, 4, is Kori Sprintz’s son. He is her second child to be diagnosed with autism. Gage, 6, is attending a public school kindergarten after attending Community School.
Gavin still has another year at the school. A year earlier, she said, “He didn’t have really any words.” It’s only been in the last few months, “he really started to emerge, using words, imitating us and sometimes his peers, which is awesome.”
It is the chief reason her family brought the boys to the Community School.
“These kids need typical peers to learn from,” she said.
In a fully integrated classroom, the boys see typical behavior in action every day.
Earlier in the morning, a typically developing little girl in Gavin’s class went out of her way to save his seat.
It’s those little acts of kindness that give her peace as his mother.
It’s not all one-sided, ether.
“The typical children learn to be accepting and understanding of kids who are different than them.”
Diaz has told plenty of parents considering enrolling their child, “If you want your child to focus on gaining skills of communication, language, and learning how to be a good friend, this is the best place.”
Sprintz choked up thinking about Diaz’s decision to bring her typically developing boys to the Community School.
“These kids are going to grow up to become lawmakers, physicians, and teachers,” who will make major decisions impacting future children with autism.
“The earlier that you start teaching your children to be accepting and understanding, the better.
SARRC will hold an open house for the Tempe campus April 14.
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