Monday, December 25, 2006

Florida Awards $700,000 Grant to Start Tampa Autism Center

The Florida Department of Education has awarded a $700,000 grant for a new autism center near Tampa to be developed and run by a private company that has built more than 100 schools in 14 states.

Educational Services of America, a Nashville-based company started in 1999 (see their website here), announced it received the grant to build the Florida Autism Center of Excellence near Tampa to serve students aged 3 to 23 in six Florida counties. The company last week issued a press release (see it here) which was picked up by several Florida news media outlets. The release states in part:

"The Florida Center of Autism Excellence will provide a comprehensive program to address the unmet needs of students with Autism Spectrum Disorders," Mark Claypool, president and chief executive officer of ESA, said. "We believe that children and young adults with autism can advance in their academic and interpersonal skills if they are given the right type of instruction, encouragement and tools to learn in a safe and healthy academic environment.

"Unfortunately, current public education and social programming for students with autism is severely limited by a lack of resources and expertise, and many students simply do not receive the individualized programming that will help them progress from elementary school through high school and transition to post-secondary education," Claypool said. "That's exactly what FACE will provide students in these six counties."

FACE will offer three specific programs:

* Spectrum is a nationally recognized program serving students ages three to 22 with moderate to severe autism. Spectrum offers an individualized, language-focused, outcomes-based approach in a highly structured environment to help students transfer their newly acquired skills to everyday life.

* College Living Prep serves middle and senior high school students with Asperger's Syndrome, an Autism Spectrum Disorder, and non-verbal learning disabilities and offers academic, social development, recreational therapy and independent living skills programs.

* College Living Experience is a comprehensive program that provides structured and highly individualized assistance with academic, independent living and social skills to assist students with special needs who attend college or vocational school.

People interested in learning more about the Florida Autism Center of Excellence may contact ESA at 615-332-4900 or visit

The Tampa autism center is a non-profit entity. What's interesting about the Nashville company chosen to run it: it's got venture capital backing from New York-based investors at Trimaran Capital Partners, whose portfolio includes El Pollo Loco, a Mexican fast-food chain; specialty retailer Urban Brands; Reddy Ice, which supplies packaged ice to Wal-Mart; and International Transmission Company, described as "the first independent electric transmission company in the U.S."

That Trimaran investors describe Educational Services of America as "the nation's leading operator of K-12 special education schools" says something about the growing business opportunity they must see in educating kids with special needs. Can that for-profit drive mesh with the public service mission of education, and what these kids with autism need?


Anonymous said...

Good question. At least some people out there are trying to meet the needs of this population, but do you think this company is likely to put profits before real progress for individual kids? Perhaps only time will tell. I wonder what their track record is in their other schools...

Anonymous said...

My name is John McLaughlin and I work for Educational Services of America, which will manage the Florida Autism Center of Excellence. 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. I invite you to visit our website,, or to contact me at

Thank you,

John M. McLaughlin, Ph.D

Executive Vice President & Chief Development Officer

Educational Services of America

Anonymous said...

Hi , I am a mother of a child with autism in Orlando area . We are some many families here , Orlando maybe has two or three very expensives schools for autistic kids. I would like to know if you use the ABA aproach in your school?(applied behavioral analysis is a treatment with more than 30 years of cientific evidency )