Last Updated: Jan 8th, 2015 - 07:42:25

PG set to start autism classes
By Blake Belden, Staff Writer
Jul 12, 2013, 13:52

PRINCE GEORGE — North Elementary School will house a new program for autistic students in Prince George County following a unanimous School Board vote on Monday night.

The program, titled Making the Connection,  is an alternative form of special education that devotes an entire curriculum to meeting the needs of children from pre-kindergarten through second grade who are moderately to severely impaired by autism, said Jessica Little, the special education coordinator for Prince George County schools.

“The purpose of the program is to provide a classroom environment that meets the highly individualized needs of these students [with] a very structured classroom setting with a strong emphasis on language acquisition, [and] the development of adaptive, cognitive and social skills,” Little said during a presentation before the School Board.

According to Zetta Ethington, Prince George Director of Special Education, there has been a growing need for autistic-specific instruction.

“There has been a dramatic increase in servicing students diagnosed with autism within the district setting over the last couple years,” Ethington said.

Taking effect by September of this year, Making the Connection will offer 16 student openings at North Elementary. This number is derived from federal regulations that enforce a maximum of eight special education students for every one teacher, and the staffing availability within the county budget can provide for two teachers.

Little said that the program could expand to higher grade levels were there more staff to do so.

As far as picking North Elementary, Little said that there were many factors that went in to choosing the location for the program, including playground safety, minimal proximity to busy roads, lack of existing special needs programs (to provide a balance in service distribution in the county) and a dedicated administration.

Prince George’s current special education program places children in a cross-categorical classroom comprised of kids with up to 13 different special needs classifications. 

“The more that we learn about autism, the more that we realize it takes a completely different type of classroom and a different type of instructional method to meet their very specific needs,” Little said at the meeting.

Little said that the kids chosen for the program will be evaluated beforehand by a designated eligibility team to see whether each child will actually benefit from a separate classroom.

Superintendent Bobby Browder said that if the number of students diagnosed in Prince George with autism continues at the current pace, the need will be even greater down the road to find funding to expand this program.

“We need to look at ways, internally, the district can accommodate these students,” Browder said.

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