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.