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New High School for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

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Each fall, thousands of teenagers and their families are filled with nervous excitement and anticipation for the first day of high school. In the fall of 2011, in Cincinnati, Ohio, several families of children who have autism spectrum disorders celebrated the beginning of their high school years in a new school designed specifically to meet their needs.

New student Bo Broadnax started attending The Children's Home High School for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders in the fall of 2011. On orientation day August 16, he and his family received a tour of the new school.

The Children's Home of Cincinnati, a founding member of CWLA, developed the new high school in partnership with Linden Grove Academy, a K-8 school for children who have diagnoses along the autism spectrum. Parents voiced a need for a secondary school to meet the needs of their children as they enter high school. The Children's Home responded to that need by creating a new high school that will provide students with a high quality, individualized education that supports the continued development of social and life skills in an academic setting. The Children's Home High School for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders meets Ohio's content standards for curriculum and offers credits toward a high school diploma. Students are also able to use Ohio's Autism Scholarship Program, which gives qualifying families the choice to attend a special education program other than the one operated by their home school district.

The Children's Home has a rich history of providing education and treatment services. Each year, it touches the lives of over 6,000 vulnerable children and their families, providing education and treatment services that build the skills and confidence to succeed. The Children's Home is one of only 16 organizations in North America certified in the Teaching Family Model, which helps children with social, behavioral, and learning challenges succeed in their home, school, and community environments.

On August 16, 2011, orientation day, Bo Broadnax and his parents toured the newly remodeled school building, which was designed specifically to meet the sensory needs of children with autism. The building is structured to reduce echoes and sensory distractions, as children with autism can have extremely sensitive auditory and tactile senses and can be overstimulated in traditional school environments. Bo and his family also got a sneak peek into the kitchenette and sensory room; the kitchenette is designed to provide students with the opportunity to learn independent living skills, and the school's occupational therapist will use the sensory room as part of the individualized curriculum for each student.

"I heard about the new high school for children with autism spectrum disorders from a fellow physician whose child attended one of the Children's Home's other programs," said Bo's mother, Marcia Bowling. "We are excited for Bo to have the opportunity to attend a local school that will meet his needs." Bo previously attended an out-of-town boarding school for children with autism; the new high school at the Children's Home opened just in time to coincide with his first year of high school. Bo and his family are not alone in seeking quality educational opportunities specifically for children with autism. The need for quality, specialized education services is growing as the number of children with autism spectrum diagnoses increases to about 1 in every 110 children born in the United States each year.

Technology is an important component of the school. Students like Bo will be able to harness cutting-edge technology, including computers and interactive smart boards on the walls of every classroom. Students will also be able to tap into community resources like volunteers from nearby St. Xavier High School. Volunteers will interact with students around common interests, such as robotics (St. Xavier has a robotics program) and other topics; this will provide a starting ground for peer-to-peer social and recreational opportunities.

Even the way the lunchroom is designed is meant to improve the students' experience. Instead of encountering the daunting task of figuring out where to sit and how to make friends in a cafeteria that seats 300, high school students at the Children's Home will find themselves in a smaller lunchroom designed to foster the development of appropriate social skills. Supportive, specially trained staff will be on hand to model appropriate behavior and help students develop the skills that will make social interactions and independence easier and more comfortable in the years ahead.

The teachers at the new high school bring more than 60 years of combined experience working with children with developmental disabilities. "Our goal is to help students become as independent as possible by earning a high school diploma, developing job skills, and learning the life skills that will help them succeed outside of the classroom," explains Gary Robbe, a teacher and lead intervention specialist at the new high school. Robbe anticipates that many students who attend the school will go on to college with a few accommodations that will help to ensure their continued success.

Susan Schmidt, another teacher and intervention specialist on staff, agrees. "One of the things that differentiates this school from other educational options for students with autism is the regular presence of speech and language therapists and the integration of social and life skill development into our everyday curriculum," she says, "not to mention that students receive credits toward graduation."

With an eye to the future, the school will also focus on building job and independent living skills. "Since Bo will be able to attend a local school that meets his needs, we're glad that he'll be able to do things that were impossible at boarding school, like take piano lessons and even look for a local job," his mother says. And the staff at the Children's Home will be ready to support Bo's growing independence through job-readiness training that will be part of the curriculum. As Robbe explains, "Children with autism have great learning potential, and families can see great improvement in their children when schools teach and model appropriate behavior and social skills."

Kateri Kosta is a development assistant at the Children's Home of Cincinnati.

Creating Jobs for Teens

CWLA member EMQ Families First joined other Santa Clara County, California, agencies to plan a community workforce development luncheon. One of the agencies, TeenForce, has been focused on increasing teen employment. Included in their efforts was a pilot program for youth in foster care, and 20% of those youth found jobs. The Terraces of Los Gatos has been the primary employment partner in the foster youth jobs program, providing work opportunities to six youth for a total of 790 hours, according to TeenForce founder and executive director John Hogan, who spoke to in Los Gatos. EMQ Families First recommended and supported the teens participating in the program.

Training Mandated Reporters

The Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance provided training to 8,100 mandated report-ers on how to recognize and report child abuse and neglect during its last program year, an increase of nearly 10% over the previous year. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, 24,615 reports of suspected child and student abuse were received in 2010, and mandated reporters made up 77% of all referrals for substantiated reports. PFSA specializes in providing training on recognizing and reporting suspected abuse and neglect through schools, early childhood education centers, religious institutions, and social service agencies. In the past year, it added a new curriculum that emphasizes the type of child abuse injuries and conditions that law enforcement personnel might encounter.

Fostering Futures for Youth

In the fall of 2011, a Michigan program called Foster Your Future started its second year of helping teens about to age out of the foster care system. After becoming foster parents and seeing the difficulties older youth faced when they were unprepared to live on their own, a Genesee County couple started the group. Last year, each session included hands-on learning and practical presentations, all aimed at helping students develop skills, gain awareness of community resources, and set goals for their lives. Twelve boys and four girls, ages 14 to 17, participated in life-skills classes based on a national program for foster children developed by Casey Family Programs. Each week focused on a specific theme.

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