Lessons in Learning

Spotlight School: Peninsula School For Autism

Finding the right school for your child can be difficult. But it can seem impossible when your child has challenges that aren’t easily accommodated by the school system. A small school in Newport News is working to make that search easier for families of children with autism.

The Peninsula School for Autism, a non-profit, private day school facility, opened its doors in September 2011. It offers an intensive, year-round program that provides students with individualized instruction based on the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)—a system with 40+ years of research to support it as best practice—to target a broad range of academic, language, behavior and life skills goals.

“PSA is licensed by the Virginia Department of Education to serve up to 14 students between the ages of five and 22 in our current location,” explains Executive Director Sydney Mrowiec. “We are at capacity, with plans to expand in an effort to meet the demand for services within the Tidewater region.” In fact, there is a lengthy waiting list.

Where other diagnoses are more predictable, autism is highly variable. “Every diagnosis looks different; each child presents with different skills and behaviors,” says Mrowiec. At PSA, each student’s educational program is tailored to match his or her strengths and needs. A team of providers—which can include a licensed special educator, behavior analyst, speech therapist, as well as instructors—works together to design the best course of instruction for the student.

One of the things that sets PSA apart is their emphasis on one-on-one instruction—a typical day at the school includes three hours of one-on-one time spent on academics. (Instructional programming focuses on the Virginia Standards of Learning, language development, addressing maladaptive behavior, and identifying learning barriers.)

Two hours of the school day are dedicated to other aspects of development—fine and gross motor skills, adaptive physical education, art, music, computers—with one hour for lunch and recess. Students work with multiple instructors throughout the day and spend time in small groups with their peers; applying their skills in a variety of settings is an important aspect of the work the students do.

PSA may be small now, but they have big plans for their future. Currently, the school operates in a building owned by the Boys & Girls Club. “It’s a great spot,” says Mrowiec, “but we are bursting at the seams.” A larger facility would enable the school to serve even more students living in Coastal Virginia.

Also on the horizon are plans to offer physical therapy, vocational training, and services for adults with autism. A Pre-K program is a particularly high priority, as a diagnosis of autism is often made by the age of two, and earlier intervention typically translates to an earlier and smoother transition to less restrictive school environments.

PSA receives no state funding, and the individualized instruction provided by its enthusiastic and skilled educators, which has proven so effective, is not inexpensive. The school relies upon support from grants and the community to bridge the inevitable gap between tuition and actual operating costs. Community sponsorships and innovative partnerships with local businesses and schools help to ensure that they can provide the best specialized education programs possible. Such partnerships also serve to raise awareness and remind the community that there is a real need for the school and its services.

On a recent walk through the bright halls and cozy classrooms of PSA, there were students working closely with their teachers and proudly checking off activities completed on their personalized schedules. Some children were identifying colors and numbers, while others worked with iPads. One was curled up in a beanbag chair with a book during a well-earned break.  

A student stopped to say hello as he and a teacher walked by on their way to his classroom. “He’s a real success story,” Mrowiec said with a smile.

And he is hardly the exception. The Peninsula School for Autism is a place where success stories are happening every day.

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