Monday, September 03, 2007

New Florida Autism Charter School Opens in Tampa

The Florida Autism Center of Excellence (FACE), a school for kids with autism spectrum disorders started with a $700,000 state grant, opened the doors to its Tampa campus on August 20. The program set to serve students ranging in age from 3 to 22 will be a school parents and educators around the nation will want to watch for a few reasons.

First is the state of Florida's involvement in opening this school at a time when there's growing demand around the nation for autism services. The state awarded the grant to cover start-up costs for the school to serve the Tampa area.

Second: Tuition is at least partly covered by state scholarships in a program called the McKay Scholarship Program for Students with Disabilities, according to FACE. This is a "school choice" program that allows parents of children with disabilities to find a public or sanctioned private school that meets their student's needs. FACE is a program that's eligible for these funds.

And third: autism services represent a real business opportunity for entrepreneurs. Running the non-profit Florida school is Educational Services of America, a private for-profit operator of special education schools based in Nashville. Mark Claypool, the president and CEO, told the Nashville Business Journal last month that his company is expected to increase its revenues by 20 percent, to $90 million per year, by targeting two areas of opportunity: the rising high school dropout rate and "the big volume of students diagnosed with autism." See the article here. Educational Services of America runs close to 140 programs in 17 states.

These building blocks for FACE—state action to start a school, tuition aid to help make the program available, plus a private corporation putting its management reputation on the line—make the school very interesting for families of kids with autism around the nation to watch and wonder how it works out. Could it be a model for other autism charter schools in other states? We'll have to see.

As for the school itself, educators plan to run it according to the principals of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), according to a spokeswoman for the Florida Autism Center. About the school's staff, she said at least one staff member has master's degree training in ABA, and added:

  • All staff, both teachers and assistants, have attended extensive training on ABA principles, learning best practices, functional behavior assessment, data collection and teaching methodologies;
  • FACE teachers will also be taking several college level courses in the area of autism to be eligible for a special credential in autism to be added to their teaching certificate; and
  • Several of the teachers at FACE are applying to the University of South Florida graduate program in ABA.

The school's website also mentions discrete trial training, pivotal response training, functional behavior assessments and positive behavior intervention plans as pieces of its ABA approach.

It's not clear as of this writing how many students have enrolled at the Tampa school; the school says it has a 140-acre campus, which includes a horse stable and boat house with canoes, in addition to other classroom and gym facilities.

Two other notes:

1. Do you have questions for the managers of the Florida Autism Center of Excellence, about how they started, how they plan to run things, how they train staff? Please post a comment at the end of this article, or write to me at michaelsgoldberg AT yahoo DOT com. I will collect them and see if we can get more information about this interesting program.

2. The last time I wrote about Educational Services of America (see Florida Awards $700,000 Grant to Start Tampa Autism Center), I raised questions about the role of a for-profit company in the special education business, which summed up asked: can managers looking to build revenues and maximize profits also deliver quality human services?

An executive from the company, John McLaughlin, wrote a thoughtful response which I am reposting here:

Our mission is to provide excellent education services for students with special needs and at-risk students in a structured and encouraging environment. The best testimony for Michael’s question on the mesh between for-profit and public service can be found in the thousands of families and public school districts that place their students in our schools and programs everyday. We are committed to help students develop academic and interpersonal skills that will lead them toward more independent lives. Having spent the first two decades of my career in the non-profit and academic worlds, I find little difference in the fiscal realities of for-profit and non-profit operations – students come first. ESA is mission-driven to be the best provider of services to children and young adults with autism.

29 comments:

ASD Mom said...

Very interesting post and it raises interesting questions about what constitutes quality services for kids with autism. Based on the description of teacher qualifications you mentioned, the school does not have qualified ABA supervisors -- notably, any Board Certified Behavior Analysts. And just one teacher has a master's in ABA. That does not inspire confidence. If you contact them with more questions, please ask about that.

Anonymous said...

As a parent of a highly functional Asperger student, who currently attends FACE in Tampa, I must say my wife and I are very unhappy with the school, for several reasons:

1) The wide disparity in the level of Autistic & Asperger students in each classroom, i.e. from non-communicative/self abusive to highly functional in the same classroom; making it virtually impossible for a highly functional student to learn and/or advance.
2) The lack of training and quality of the faculty.
3) Extreme lack of preparation by the administration.
4) As parents being "sold a bag of goods," which certainly were misrepresented by the school's administration.

It has become readily apparent, to my wife and I that FACE is just trying to become a "money maker" for ESA. Therefore, if you are a parent considering FACE, I must say "Buyer Beware."

Anonymous said...

Educational Services of America owns private schools for children with disabilities in several cities in Florida. These schools consist of The Broach School, Atlantis Academy, Crossroads and Bishop Eton. If you want to see the quality of ESA's services take a look at the schools they already have a reputation with. These schools do not provide quality private school education and the tuition ranges from $9000-22,000 per year. The schools have a high turnover of staff which always sends red flags. This company is in the business of "FOR PROFIT" and if you go and take a look at the schools you will get an eye opener. The FACE charter school is a good thought but it would be better served if it was in the hands of a truly "not-for-profit"
As a parent of a child with disabilities I would never leave my child in the hands of these educators.

Anonymous said...

Thank you to the parents that posted feedback.
I beleive that these schools (I mean all the schools that are solely for children in the Spectrum) lack soething our kids need desperately: social interaction. Our children need to relate to the normal world and with all children. How can we expect that they function as typically as possible if we limit their pier relation to children like them, who lack social abilities. I beleive that the Public Schools need to increase the funds for children with special needs and offer ABA in their curriculum. That combination has to be more effective in improving the quality of life of our children

Anonymous said...

While many of the points here are very well taken, there needs to be some grace given to a new school. So "anonymous" on 9/15, where is your child attending now?Just curious...

Anonymous said...

It is interesting to me, as a service provider to children and families who are impacted by autism that there are not more questions being posed about the actual benefits and research of the entire basis of the program. ABA is only one very small component that ignores some of the core issues related to autism. As a family member, I would be expecting better programatic choices for my child, which are research based, incorporate all people involved with the child, and recognize that ABA is no longer the "best practice". Discrete trials have proven to be in-effective for children with autism, so there are more critical issues than the "money making machine" that over sees the program.

Michael Goldberg said...

Thanks for your comment. To me, it reflects ABA's public relations problem.

There are Board Certified Behavior Analysts and other practitioners who can defend Applied Behavior Analysis better than I can from a broad swipe like this. I would just say that it's a mistake for anyone, especially a service provider, to misrepresent what ABA is. It's an approach to providing services, to addressing problem behaviors and encouraging positive behaviors that include learning. It requires a lot of training and supervision to be done well. It is about more than discrete trials.

It's OK to have an opinion that says there are other approaches to educating kids with autism, but it's not OK to argue that ABA is not a best practice approach when it's done well, by well trained people with proper supervision. This is difficult to do, of course. But there's too much peer-reviewed research, too much evidence to back it up to dismiss it out of hand as this commenter does.

Anonymous said...

How many of the teachers are ABA certified? What is the experience of the people teaching the program?
Do any of them have experience with children on the spectrum? My findings suggest the lack of certification for the teachers. The assistants appear to have "no" experience with the population they serve.

Anonymous said...

Postings here illustrate the many misconceptions about ABA. ABA is the only treatment program scientifically proven to be effective for children on the spectrum. When implemented correctly, ABA, as evidenced by research, helps most children with Autism, regardless of where they are on the spectrum, maximize their potential. An effective behavioral program based on the principles of ABA incorporates all aspects of ABA and can include DTT (discrete trial teaching). DTT is usually used early in the child's individual program to teach specific functional skills. As a NYC early interventionist and early childhood special educator, I have had the opportunity to work in many ABA programs. Many of the programs don't use DTT; however all the programs seek to teach all the skills a typical child acquires naturally. As such, curricula tends to focus heavily on social and language skills. I recently relocated to Fl and am shocked at the lack of programs for children with ASD. I have not researched this school enough to comment.

Anonymous said...

I find that it is always the negative people that tend to make the most noise. Yes Face has its issues but for a new school , I feel they are pointed in the right direction. The two teachers that I have had direct contact with are both warm and caring . They are male teachers and my daughter has really taken to them. I have an open communication with them. We work as a team. I have my concerns and hope they will weather the negative people and continue on.

Michael Goldberg said...

Thank you for your comment. There's no question starting a new school like FACE is a marathon, not a sprint. It's good to hear about your experience and I hope you will keep participating in the discussion here.

Anonymous said...

We had our doubts about FACE but were new to the area and heard the right things from the administration there. My son attended FACE from September through the end of 2008. The administration always told me what I wanted to hear but we had trouble with communication, getting an IEP in place and other issues. There was alot of teacher turnover and my perception was tha the teachers were not happy with the way the program was being run. Many of the programs we were promised did not materialize. I chalked most of that up to growing pains. We were happy with the teachers and believed that our son was learning and most important that his self confidence was increasing. We planned to leave him at FACE next year but to look around for other programs. We got a call at the end of June from FACE that they were closing their high school program for high functioning kids on a high school diploma track. I was so shocked that we weren't given any notice. FACE offered no assistance in the placement of our son elsewhere. I would not recommend placing a child with this institution.

Anonymous said...

just took a high functioning asperger student to FACE in Tampa and was thoroughly disappointed. absolutely nothing there for him to proceed for a high school diploma. why I was not told of the disparity of students thrown together making it impossible to get an education. we were not looking for a day care sitter.

AutismMatters said...

As the mother of an ASD daughter and also a business woman, let me start off by saying that I believe the potential for special education outsourcing is huge. But not with this particular company. I am a resident in the Tampa Bay area, and toured this "school" in May, 2008. The facility, location, and security were all sub-par. While I'm sure well meaning, the staff did not have the credentials one would expect (many were "in process" of obtaining teaching degrees, never mind advanced degrees or advanced work with special populations). The students did not appear to be appropriately leveled for the classes. While they bill themselves as "spectrum," they did not seem to have a clear understanding of or approach to the autistic spectrum. Hillsborough made a mistake here, and I hope they are monitoring this situation. I was fortunate to find a private school that takes McKay for my daughter (PDD/NOS)where all the teachers have teaching degrees (!), 75% have masters in education, 10% are in process of advanced degrees, and all have at least 10 years of teaching experience- most with special populations. My daughter's teacher has 28 years teaching special kids at the same school. It is possible to do it right.

Anonymous said...

Please, please tell me where this school is.. a phone number.. something!! My child attends FACE and I am very unhappy with his progress and the teachers this year!

Anonymous said...

My son began in Aug. 2007. Like some of the people said, "It was too good to be true". During the first 2 months my son made very little progress even though we were hopefull that things were going to change for the better but between Oct. and Dec. of '07 he changed 3 teachers, 2 aides and a Director. The new Director seemed he did not have an idea of what was going on. We kept asking why each classroom only had 1 aide, when there were kids more challenging than others but they kept saying that it was the way the system was set to run. Beginning Jan.'08 we thought of moving my son but we spoke to the Director once again and he gave us some hi hopes of new changes and we stayed. HUGE MISTAKE!!! By the time the year ended my son had 7 teachers in all and 4 aides. Of course any parent of an ASD knows that inconsistency is terrible for our kids. It was a year thrown in the dump. No advances and no gains. Plus during the first and only field trip to the Aquarium one girl got lost for a period of 30 minutes without anyone taking necessary measures and without notifying the parent. Thank God that we found her! Also they hired a Behavior Analyst which had no certification and worked as a secretary instead of trying to accomplish improvements in the kids. The teachers were not certified and also the aides had no clue as to what needed to be done. In conclusion I DO NOT RECOMMEND FACE to anyone.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 1/09/2009 6:11 PM,

Your recollection of the time period your son was there is not very good. The young girl was not lost that long and her mother served as a chaperone at the field trip to the Aquarium. Directors were changed, but not until the summer of 2008. Also, all the teachers were/are certified (professionally or temporary) with degrees and there are certified ABA therapist serving their purpose at the school.
What I have seen is parents go in with high expectation from the school but do not do their part at home. In order to be successful you must work as a team. I have seen major progress in the students who attend FACSE.

Anonymous said...

This school is a joke. It is primarily run by teacher assistants that barely graduated from high school. Why? Well, I dated someone who worked there as a TA. She would come home, make fun of the kids, citing jokes that she and her coworkers made about the "retards". Yeah, sounds like they really care about who they help.

Anonymous said...

Thank you everyone for the post. I will not send my son here. I am scared but all these comments.

Anonymous said...

I've had my child at FACE for 2 years now, and we're entering our third year. This school had an extremely rocky start, to say the least. Previous commenters have listed some of the problems: high teacher turnover, unqualified teachers, constant staff re-routing, etc. The initial Director left after the first year, and we now have an excellent Director, Shannon Moss, who is a BCBA. The improvements last year were dramatic. Towards the end of the school year, the original management company (ESA) announced that they would no longer back the charter. A new company, Quest (out of Orlando), has taken over the charter. A new board has been instituted with local participants. Programs are being added. Classrooms were spruced up. Teachers were consulted on their needs. I think the school will continue to make forward progress.

My own child has had a great experience with this school, despite the rough start. When she started she was in Pull-Ups refusing to potty train, wouldn't speak other than to repeat, wouldn't follow directions, seemingly didn't even understand us when we spoke. Today, 2 years later, she is day and night trained and she has excellent receptive language skills: we can ask her to do something and she does it. She speaks to express her wants/needs (still not up to par, but she does speak) and she's reading, doing math, and learning social skills with her peers. She receives onsite speech and OT services at no additional charge, and the school is part of the public school system (thus free). I know for a fact that within Hillsborough County, FL public schools, this is the best possible placement for my child. I would encourage those that doubt the school to observe a classroom in action. Appearances aren't everything, it's the quality of the instruction that counts.

Anonymous said...

My daughter has attended this school the last 3 years. She was going to public school, which was a glorified daycare, before I moved her to this school. I am very happy. Her education is better as well as her life skills. she is better at folowing directions and I can tell her teachers really love their job. The students are HAPPY and the staff is delightful. The security is no more lax than a public school. It is a new school and there are a few kinks to workout but I think it is unfair to call it a joke because all the teachers do not have masters degrees. Most teachers do not have masters degrees. In order to recruit these people you must have the RECOURCES and finances to pay them. The school is still trying to get buses. Yes I took her out of public school, where they would pick her up and drop her off in front of my house, to driving her to and from school and providing lunch myself. I don't worry about my daughter being abused,ridiculed, picked on or stared at. That is how much I love her and belive in this school.

autism.jh said...

I would love to have some information about how to start a program/school like this. Any information you have would help me tremendously! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

I am a mother of a 5 yr old PDD/ADHD son..He has been going to puble school for the past 2 years by getting the help from Child Find..He will be attending kindergarten next year and was looking into schools for him as he is on teh sever develpment delay accounting to Hills. Cty. School..After reading above I don't think I would choose this school for him now as he needs the one on one and some of the statements surely don't back this up..If it helps any other familys..Child Find is great with helping for all your service needs with your child..My son will be attending kindergarten in public school with a teacher assigned just to him to sit one on one with him all day with his schooling so if he has his melt downs or misunderstandings someone is with him with the aid and teachers can help with the other child..He will be in a normal class as I feel that the more normal setting I can give him the better he develops..I see him try harder and make better progress when he is in the what you can call "Normal" setting..Well I hope this helps and thats for the post it has helped my school questions become answered...Thanks..

Anonymous said...

I am a mother of a 3 year old with PDD-NOS. I currently live in Fort Myers,Fl and I have seriously considered moving to the Tampa Bay area so that I can enroll my son in this school. As I am reading the comments that were posted when this school first opened...I am very discouraged. My question is to the person that posted above me in May 2010.
Do you think this school is worth my relocating to the Tampa Bay area? I am mainly interested in it because, it is FREE. I currently pay $50.00 for 4 hours of ABA therapy in Ft. Myers, and it is really killing my pocket and I cannot afford it much longer. I use to send him 5 days a week but I can't do it anymore, which is why I want him to go to FACE.

Stevie said...

To AutismMatters...just curious, what school is your daughter attending? I just moved to Tampa and trying to find a school for my son. He has autism PDD-NOS. I went to FACE and another private school and wasn't pleased at all.
Thanks...Concern Mom

Anonymous said...

I was looking to move to the Tampa area from Omaha, NE and have to say I'm deeply discouraged by everything I have read & everyone I have talked to. My son has had a new teacher almost every year. They have been doing exactly what everyone posting has WANTED a teacher to do. My son is being mainstreamed in 2 classes currently, and we're discussing more. They keep me fully involved, and I make it a point to be involved in every decision about him. We have a Respite Care Center that acts as his before & after school daycare with a doctor and nurse on staff every time the school is open. Everyone there is trained or training to work with special needs children, including fully disabled ones, through age 21. His teachers have never heard of "ABA", but after researching it, it's exactly how they've approached it, all on gut instinct. It's disappointing to see that services there wouldn't be even close to par with what I have here.

Noahsmom711 said...

I'm curious. I see all the negative comments on this school but most look like the school was unorganized and uniformed. I want to know how well the school is doing since Quest took it over. How has it improved? Do they offer one to one aides? Have the classrooms been improved with more classrooms being seperated into more equally developing personalities? or are they still keeping the non-verbal with the verbal and non-behavioral with the behavioral? What is happening at this school and if this school is a public school why doesn't it have bus service for these children? My son has PDD-NOS and we live in Ca. we are wanting to move to Fl. so were looking for a good school. We have lived in Florida before and find that Florida is well behind the other states in their ability to handle a wide range of disabilites and Autism in the school districts. We have been very disappointed in the past and don't want to be in the future.

Mildred said...

I would love to have some information about how to start a program/school like this. Any information you have would help me tremendously! Thank you!

caden's dad said...

Can anyone update me on how the new management, Quest, has been doing with the FACE school in Tampa? I have the opportunity for a job transfer. Not thrilled about living in Florida. Pay for private school here in Charlotte, NC. A new ABA based private school. It to seems unorganized. Looking for feedback on FACE or a place to find more opinions. Thanks.

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