Autism: Colorado School Districts Turn to Joshua

coloradofrom The Denver Post, August 3

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — “Are you ready?” Joshua School teacher Katharine Barnes asked the 11-year-old boy hiding behind shopping carts at the entrance to a SuperTarget store.  The boy has autism, and public settings make him freeze in fear. This shopping trip is part of his therapy at the Joshua School in Englewood, the only private school for children with autism in Colorado that is cleared by the Colorado Department of Education to receive state and district education funds.  “He has so much anxiety,” Barnes said. “He’s never come to a place this big. You can just see that inner battle.”

As shoppers passed unaware, the boy crawled to a rack and then to another aisle and waited. Eventually, he stood and gingerly took a few steps. Before long, he was walking deep into the store with a smile on his face.  “That just makes you feel so good,” Barnes said.  This year, 18 school-age kids and two preschoolers are enrolled in the 4-year-old Joshua School.

Many Joshua School students have extreme behavioral and learning disabilities. The curriculum includes intense therapies, step-by-step instruction and weekly outings for those struggling with some of the most profound effects of autism or related disorders.  The $48,000 annual tuition bill for 15 of them is covered by 11 Colorado school districts.  “(The tuition) is a good example of the costs that go into educating certain students,” said Ed Steinberg, special education director for the state Department of Education.

The number of Colorado students identified with autism grew from 595 in 2001 to 1,504 in 2005 — an increase of 152 percent, according to the state Department of Education.  Although tuition is expensive, school districts are increasingly turning to specialized private schools for help teaching students who have autism.  “I am quite frankly surprised that we haven’t seen more schools, private or eligible facilities, starting up,” Steinberg said.

In 2004, a family from Berthoud made headlines when the parents moved their autistic son from the Thompson School District to a specialized private school in Boston and petitioned the district to pay the $130,000 tuition.  Initially, the courts said the district must pay because the boy’s educational needs weren’t being met in Colorado. A higher court later overturned the decision.

The controversy drew attention to the lack of special education programs in public schools to meet the needs of a growing number of children with severe autism.  “I think the public schools overall are doing a terrific job meeting the challenges,” Steinberg said. “But there are some kids who need something above and beyond.”

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