Thursday, December 06, 2007

Questions and Answers About the Florida Autism Center of Excellence in Tampa

The Florida Autism Center of Excellence (FACE), which opened August 20 in Tampa, Florida, to serve children with autism spectrum disorders, represents an interesting model for a new school. There's been a great deal of interest among Autism Bulletin readers in how the school is set up to help kids and their parents, and below I am publishing the transcript of an e-mail question-and-answer session with representatives of the school about the FACE program.

First, a bit of background. About one year ago, FACE received seed money ($700,000) from the state of Florida to cover starting costs. Students at the school are eligible for partial tuition grants from a state government "school choice" program for children with disabilities. The school is pursuing a program based on the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), which means staff seek to manage the behaviors of children to help them learn, to encourage positive behaviors that lead to growth and development and to discourage behaviors that are obstacles to learning.

In addition, the for-profit Educational Services of America, based in Nashville, is responsible for managing the nonprofit FACE school. With such a model, with a rising demand nationally for autism services and educational programs, it's no wonder that there has been a great deal of interest among Autism Bulletin readers in the school, and the specifics of how it's set up. What follows below is the full text of questions I had, plus those collected from readers, and the answers which the school administration sent on November 29 through Lovell Communications, Educational Services of America's public relations agency.

  1. What kind of training do teachers receive?

Our teachers receive specific, extensive training that begins before they enter the classroom and continues throughout the school year. Topics include Applied Behavior Analysis and specific methodologies for working with students with autism, such as discrete trial, structured teaching, social skill training and other tools to develop individual education and behavior support plans.

Our school calendar requires an additional 150 hours of formal training, which is supplemented by ongoing coaching and support from the clinical program director and from teachers who mentor their colleagues. Teachers are trained to conduct individual assessments, write lesson plans and collect and analyze data so they can make objective determinations about whether a student is advancing academically, behaviorally and socially. In addition, teachers are required to obtain an Autism Endorsement from an accredited university.

  1. What kind of training do one-on-one aides receive?

We staff classrooms to provide the greatest amount of support to promote students’ independence, enhance generalization and encourage relationships with their peers and, therefore, we do not provide one-on-one aides. However, all aides receive the same extensive, specific training the teachers receive.

  1. What direct supervision do teachers and aides receive -- how often, how much time per week and from whom?

Teachers and aides receive a high degree of support and supervision. Several teachers serve as mentors to their colleagues and the mentors hold weekly supervision meetings with classroom teachers to provide ongoing training, support and guidance. The clinical program director meets with each mentor teacher weekly. And the clinical director/behavior specialist and school director review each teacher’s weekly lesson plan. Assistants receive formal supervision from the classroom teachers once a week and on-the-job coaching, support and training all day every day.

  1. What kind of certification of education and training do you require of staff?

Our teachers are required to meet all state standards plus the standards of the Florida Autism Center of Excellence. Our school calendar requires an additional 150 hours of formal training, which is supplemented by ongoing coaching and support every day. In addition, teachers are required to obtain an Autism Endorsement from an accredited university.

  1. How many staff members have advanced training in applied behavior analysis (ABA)?
Educational Services of America, the company FACE hired to manage the school, has seven qualified board certified behavior analysts, including two who provide support and supervision to FACE and conduct on-site training for FACE teachers. The FACE clinical program director earned her master's degree in Applied Behavior Analysis from the University of South Florida and sat for the certification exam in November. The principles of ABA are the very foundation of what we do. For example, our lesson plans include ABA components such as the instruction (discriminative stimulus), the prompt level, the correction and reinforcement plan.

  1. Who is responsible for individual behavior plans for students? If an aide has a problem, where does she go for help?

The teacher, the mentor teacher and the clinical program director work collaboratively to develop students’ individual positive behavior intervention plans. If an aide has a problem, he or she goes first to the classroom teacher, then to the mentor teacher, then to the program director.

  1. How often does your staff visit with students at home to generalize lessons from school, and work on home-based skills?

Our mission is to educate students in a school environment. Therefore, our staff does not go to students’ homes – rather, we communicate with every parent every day and we invite parents to schedule visits to FACE. In addition, we will soon offer parents additional support they can use at home. Our plan called for us to open FACE in Fall 2007 and offer parent and family initiatives such as training, support groups and a parent-teacher association in Spring 2008 – and we’re on track to do that.

  1. What kind of training and education do supervisors have?

One supervisor has a bachelor’s degree in special education, a master’s degree in ABA and sat for the certification exam in November. Another has a bachelor’s degree in business management, a master’s in education and is working toward a doctoral degree in educational leadership. Our lead teachers each have bachelor’s degrees in psychology and seven years of experience working with children with autism. One of our lead teachers has a certification in Exceptional Student Education for students in grades K-12. The executive director of FACE has a bachelor’s degree in social science, a master’s in mental health counseling and is completing a doctoral program in adolescent counseling. He is a board-certified professional counselor and a licensed mental health counselor whose specialty is children and adolescents.

  1. How many board certified behavior analysts does FACE employ on site?

ESA has three board-certified behavior analysts, including two who provide direct, ongoing support to FACE and are frequently on campus. The clinical program director, whose office is on campus, has a master’s degree in ABA and sat for the certification exam this month.

  1. What is the student-teacher ratio?

We individualize our curriculum and behavior intervention plans for each student, so our student-teacher ratio is based on students’ needs. There is one teacher and one aide for every eight children at the FACE Dale Mabry campus, whose students require more intensive interventions. There is one teacher and one aide for every 15 students at the FACE Chelsea campus, whose students require less intensive interventions.

  1. How many students have a one-on-one aide, compared to the total enrollment?

We staff classrooms to provide the greatest amount of support to promote independence, enhance generalization and encourage relationships with peers and, therefore, we do not have one-on-one aides.

  1. The autism spectrum can present as a broad array of needs, from severe communications challenges, to highly verbal children who have a diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome. Do you serve them all? How?

Our mission is to provide a continuum of education and behavioral services to students anywhere on the spectrum. We do this by providing individualized curriculum and behavior intervention plans to meet the specific needs of each student. Students at our Dale Mabry campus require more intensive interventions; students at our Chelsea campus require less intensive interventions. Class sizes are small and students are grouped by according to their age and then by their level of ability. Our small class size, low student-teacher ratio, highly individualized instruction and two campuses enable us to serve students no matter where they are on the spectrum.

  1. What kind of parent training do you offer? What do you do to help parents learn about ABA?

We will begin offering parents structured training and support soon. Since FACE opened in the Fall of 2007, we have worked closely with our parents and shared our methodologies and philosophies with them. Our plan called for us to open FACE in Fall 2007 and offer parent and family initiatives such as training, and network and support groups in Spring 2008 – and we’re on track to do that. We can help parents learn about many aspects of ABA, such as positive behavior management, that will help parents and students in their daily lives at home.

  1. What other services are available for families from the school?

FACE has partnered with the Boys and Girls Club of Tampa, in part due to a federal grant to establish after school programs for children with special needs. The goal is to provide a comprehensive after school program integrating children at all levels of functioning with a comprehensive academic, social and physical program model. As part of the program, FACE students are teamed with typically developing students from other schools who serve as mentors one day a week. This provides FACE students an opportunity to interact and develop friendships with students who attend other schools.

  1. Do you offer any social worker support from the school?

Through our partnership with the Hillsborough County School District, every student and family has access to social work support.

  1. What do you say to those who are skeptical that a for-profit parent company can run an effective non-profit organization like FACE? How do you balance the need to maximize revenues, minimize costs and still provide a quality program?

Our mission is to help students with special needs develop academic, behavioral and social skills that will enable them to lead more independent lives. Being a for-profit organization allows us to do this effectively, efficiently and with a high level of quality. Organizations, whether they are non-profit or for-profit, have many of the same fiscal realities – they have income and they have expenses. But there are some important differences. Because we do not have to raise money through charitable donations, we have the resources to focus strictly on helping children. We also feel tremendous accountability. We remain in business because our programs are successful and our families are happy with the results their children achieve.

Editor's Note

As always, you are welcome to leave comments about this exchange with the FACE school. No doubt the FACE administration will see them. In addition, I want to publicly thank the school's administrators for participating in this Q&A.

For more background, also see from Autism Bulletin's archives:

New Florida Autism Charter School Opens in Tampa

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

Autism Schools Map Project


Anonymous said...

FACE talks a good game, but the reality is MUCH different. Most of the teachers are not "highly qualified", most have had little or no training in ABA save for a couple of weeks over the summer, and many are working on temporary certificates. It has taken MONTHS for the school to "get up to speed" and get organized. Turnover has been horrific. The 8 to 1 and 15 to 1 ratios are unrealistic. Teachers are prohibited from interacting with parents outside of the school (can't give out private phone numbers, etc.) or face being fired. If it weren't for the therapies my child receives at the school (which far exceed what would be offered through the public schools), I would probably have taken my child out a while ago. That said, I must admit my child has done quite well there now that they've gotten their act together (somewhat) and I'm hopeful that I will continue to see progress. I will re-evaluate our enrollment at the school at the end of the year.

Michael Goldberg said...

Thanks for your comment. It's clear that this is a school in its formative stages. From afar, it would appear the student-teacher ratios do not allow as much one-on-one instruction as kids with autism need to make progress. Still, your note reporting about your child's advances is a hopeful sign. I hope you and other parents will keep Autism Bulletin readers informed about FACE because it's an important model that others around the country will be watching.

Anonymous said...

The talk is great and I so desperatly wanted to believe what I was hearing; it just is not the case. My son came to school with his homeroom teacher just fired one day, no calls to the few parents that had her as a homeroom teacher so that we could prepare our kids. I talked to the staff and nicely expressed my frustration with this. They agreed and then another main teacher was fired weeks later again with no communication to parents. Calls were not returned. I only knew because my child was crying that the teacher's chair was gone. Both teachers had high qualifications and were replaced with teachers who did not have the same. It appeared to be a financial decision. Not what you do to kids who can't handle change. All of that could be overlooked if academically anything were up to speed. Sitting in class revealed 45 min of crossword puzzles, in spite of repeated attempts with staff asking to increase difficulty. There is just no way the school is up to state standards and I know for a fact that some teachers were hired with no experience with Autism. Math teacher is a gem. Nothing is black and white and that is what makes leaving difficult. Lots of sweet kids and sweet staff. Dream is great, but there is a long way to go before implementing it.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I just came across the blog while searching for more information about FACE. I am having a terrible time with my child's school, and I am learning early that the public school is just not cutting it in regards to children on the autisim spectrum. One thing the previous comments have is that it seems to be a positive environment for our kids.

Michael Goldberg said...

Thank you for your comments. It's clear that the FACE school is in its early stages. We would all hope the school builders there have the opportunity to build something great over time. These comments show how challenging it is to start a school from scratch, and just how critical the need is for services to educate children with autism.

Anonymous said...

I'm the original poster of the comment on 12/27 that says "FACE talks a good game..."

The school year has finally ended, and my child will NOT be returning to FACE, as many of my child's classmates will not be returning. The school is a complete and total disaster. Even the first President of the PTO withdrew her child from the school before the year was over!

We were sold a bill of goods. The teachers left in droves, there is NO campus security (several children have been lost, including mine), the teachers who stayed are for the most part under-trained for the job, and the administration continually lies and makes promises it never intends to keep.

The only way that "something great" will be built over time is if ESA is not involved in building it! This company is despicable IMHO, and will do anything it can to pull the wool over a parent's eyes.

Buyer Beware to anyone considering FACE!!

Anonymous said...

I have to say that I suprised by the comments left here about FACE. My child attended last year and returned this year and I think things are going very smoothly. There are no new teachers, only the same ones from last year and they actually promoted several assistants this year. My child loves being at FACE and I have found them to be a great staff to deal with. The school is coming together nicely.

Anonymous said...

A question about FACE's financial records. Where will information such as the operating budget be available for viewing by the public? I've looked through the fldoe site, but have had no luck.

Anonymous said...

So what is the verdict on the current state of FACE? We have a 3 year old on the autism spectrum and are moving to Tampa. We currently live in Atlanta and have been very impressed with the number of free autism schools in Tampa. We are looking at FACE and Academies of Excellence and are looking for info from parents with children there. Any info or advice would be greatly appreciated.

Anonymous said...

I stumbled across this website and felt that it was my duty to leave my experience with the FACE program for others to see. Both at the Dale Mabry and Chelsea Campuses, where I spent a lot of time at over the 07-08 school year, this program is not anywhere what it appears to be. In my time spent there, teachers were no where near "highly qualified", many coming from other professions before stepping into a school environment. "Training" for teachers included throwing power points for them to read explaining children with Autism. What goes on on the classroom is another story, many times teachers acted more as "babysitters" for the day than anything else. Getting organized has nothing to do with it, you have people that don't know how to deal with this population!
The hardest part was that newsletters were being sent home to parents talking about trained professionals and how they were working with your child one-on-one, with specialized academic and behavior training implemented and etc. What a joke! It felt unthetical to me that individuals would sign off on that letter when nothing even close to that was occuring at the school. I have a very strong passion for children in this population and it broke my heart to see that they were not receiving the so-called specialized intervention. And as far as the school being in its formative stages-should these children suffer that the school is not able to provide trained professionals or intervention? I never considered this school a positive environment for the population. I hope that since I have left this school system things have changed, but I am quite confident that it will never be what they "claim" it to be.

Anonymous said...

I am looking in to moving to the Southern Tampa area, but I've been unsuccessful in finding ANY support system that even comes close to what I have here in Nebraska (yep, NE is about 5-10 years ahead of major cities/states - it's mind-blowing).

I haven't seen feedback on this school in over a year - has anything changed with it?

Anonymous said...

Well they are now backed by Quest. Inc. the school has been a blessing for my daughter. This is her 1st year there. She is 6. When she first started attending another school in plant city where we live (30min from FACE) they baby sat her is all..they would send her home several times aweek for out bursts they didn't want to deal with..that's when my daughters ST told me about FACE. After a few months my nonverbal daughter who used to despise talking and singing...everyday. I am so thankful for the is worth every penny i spend on gas. Its a great school..n they genuinely care about the well being of the kids.they have a sensory room, aba on staff, they do animal therapy which has also helped my daughter to be way more social than she use to be...and they have not sent her home once. They work thru her meltdowns, and have a much better student/teacher ratio. N they group the kids with others that have similar functionality.. N they really help the older students to be able to graduate and function in the world as independently as possible...,I recommend it to every parent i meet with a child with autism. If u cant afford the tuition schools our extra therapies like my family, then this school is the next best thing.

Auti Mom said...

Ive been doing alot of research to (FACE)and it seems since they are backed by QUEST several things have turned around for the better! Im looking to move to the tampa area in the next year if anyone can help me with good niehborhoods and towns please email me