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Idaho school continues EPIC journey

Fri., April 3, 2009

Academy would serve autistic students

A charter school in North Idaho for children with autism nearly three years in the making is one step closer to opening its doors.

Parents on the board of the EPIC Academy, a proposed charter school designed specifically for children with Asperger’s Syndrome, appeared Thursday before the Idaho State Charter Commission for a petition to open the school in 2010-2011. It would be the first of its kind in the Coeur d’Alene area.

“(The commission) commended us on what we are trying to do,” but didn’t approve the charter at this time, said Danelle Baumgarten-Pickett, one of the parents leading the effort.

The commission asked the group to come back again in May with more information, including a better budget plan.

“They want us to firm that up a little bit,” said Baumgarten-Pickett. “We were just excited to finally get the hearing.”

It’s a process that began years ago, after a partnership with the nonprofit Panhandle Autism Society ended. PAS provided space and access to online curriculum for the parents of children with an autism disorder who no longer wished to send their children to public schools.

After problems with funding, the cooperative was canceled, said Tracy Hofius, executive director of PAS.

“It started as a pilot project with a small group of kids; when it closed there were 8,” all of whom were diagnosed with Asperger’s, Hofius said.

Children with Asperger’s are considered highly functioning, but still fall within the autism spectrum, she said. They are typically prone to show significant difficulties with social interaction and have hearing problems.

While public schools are required to educate children with special needs, and are provided funding for that purpose, Hofius said many times children with Asperger’s need smaller class sizes not possible in public classrooms.

“Kids on the spectrum also require different types of adaptations than other children; they need to have classrooms that help with their sensory needs like low lights and not a lot of stimulation,” Hofius said.

“I try to explain it to people using the lights in an office, and the buzzing sound of the fluorescent bulbs. Most of us can ignore it. To kids on the spectrum it sounds like someone is banging right in their ear.”

The EPIC Academy would provide such an environment. Current plans are to have no more than 60 children in the school, which hopes to open in a house the group is acquiring in Hayden.

“We don’t want to bite off more than we can chew; we want to start small so we can succeed,” said Baumgarten-Pickett, whose 14-year-old son has Asperger’s.

There is likely no shortage of families looking for an alternative for their special needs children, officials said.

According to research by Betty Fry Williams, a professor and coordinator of special education at Whitworth University, the number of children diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder this year will exceed those diagnosed with AIDS, diabetes and cancer combined. Fry Williams contends that one out of every 150 children is affected by autism.

“The point of a charter is to look at a specific area of need,” Hofius said. “Obviously there is a need.”

But if approved, the school would have to be open to any children who apply, even though it would cater to children with autism.

“As a charter school we’d be a public school … we’d be accepting all students,” said Baumgarten-Pickett.

“We’d be more of an individual learning environment,” focused on life skills.

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