District 51 adds programs for kids with autism, older students

District 51 is adding two new programs for special needs students this fall.

Redlands Middle School will host the district’s first sixth-  through 12th-grade program specifically for students with autism. The program can hold up to seven students and this fall will host five 12- to 17-year-old students, mostly from an autism program started at Tope Elementary School last year.

The district is remodeling a former home economics classroom to accommodate the new program. The room will include individual learning spaces, a common area, a bathroom and an outdoor area that will be fenced-in for safety reasons.

Federal grants paid for the nearly $10,000 remodeling, and a $24,000 grant from the Mortgage Family Foundation will fund technology purchases for the room. The room will have touch-screen-ready devices such as a “smart table,” a “smart board” and an iPad for each student. Touch screens fit well with the motor skills of students on the autism spectrum, according to District 51 Executive Director of Student Services Tanya Skalecki.

It may seem like a lot to invest amidst budget cuts, but Skalecki said the room and its amenities are needed to give students a centralized place to receive targeted assistance and overcome anxieties to gradually blend with their peers. It’s also less expensive than sending students to Denver, she said, something the district has to do now for at least one child with severe needs related to autism. Making such an accommodation can cost up to $100,000 per student.

“I want to keep them here, and their parents want to keep them here,” Skalecki said.

The Career Center will host another new program for students with special needs starting this fall. The program, called Individual Student-Centered Transition Employment Program Services, or InSTEPS, will teach 18- to 21-year-old students with cognitive impairments how to tackle “real world” tasks such as applying for a job, making a doctor’s appointment, and living independently. Students have to complete their high school graduation requirements before enrolling in the program and they’ll graduate from high school once they’re done with InSTEPS.

Older students were originally taught life skills in special needs classrooms at local high schools, but Skalecki said she wanted to use leftover American Recovery and Reinvestment Act money to create a centralized program. The modular that will house the program will have a kitchen, a lesson area and a living room area to give students the feeling they’re in a vocational program and not in high school.


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