Every so often, the idea of opening a private school for special-needs students, most often those with autism, seems to creep up on local special education list-serves, but rarely does the idea actually lead to bricks and mortar.
In late June, however, the Tucson Unified School District governing board voted to lease Howenstine Magnet High School to Intermountain Centers for Human Development, a 40-year-old behavioral health agency that provides in-home services as well as residential and education programs for students with special needs, both emotional and physical, in Pima County.
Most recently, it was operating the Nellie P. Covert School at the Arizona Children's Association, but the lease has allowed Intermountain to expand its school program and create the Intermountain Academy at Howenstine, one of 11 schools the TUSD board voted to close last year as part of plan to reduce an expected $17 million budget shortfall.
Karen Young, Intermountain's director of development, told the Tucson Weekly she's unsure if any of Howenstine's former students will attend the new school. But she said she was told by TUSD that many of Howenstine's students with physical disabilities, as well as developmental disabilities, were transferred to Project MORE, a TUSD alternative school.
Young confirmed that Intermountain agreed to rent the school property for three years, with two one-year renewal options. Intermountain is paying $102,540 per year for the first three years.
The school has two classrooms for students with a range of disabilities, including behavior and developmental challenges, and it started the school year Aug. 1 with two more classrooms devoted to students with low- and high-functioning autism. One has students from kindergarten through second grade and the other is for third- through fifth-graders.
The concept of the academy is to serve those with particularly challenging behaviors in the classroom and get them stabilized and able to return to their home school, Young said, sitting in the school lobby.
"At the Covert school we had two classrooms, but we weren't able to enlarge and become the academy we imagined. This setting is ideal for what we want to provide the community."
Intermountain works with 3,000 children every year in Pima County, many in-home. It was through these experiences that the agency realized it could provide an education for many of these same students, too, including those with autism.
Rather than go the charter school route, Young said the agency decided to open a private school. Students who are referred by their home school will have their tuition paid for by the home district, which could include any of the five school districts in the Tucson area. GEICO has provided the agency with $2 million in scholarship funds for low-income students and displaced students.
Private licensing for the school required that Intermountain have a 5-acre parcel, which made Howenstine an ideal match.
"This was a perfect opportunity for us. TUSD didn't want to rent the facility to something that would compete and technically we don't," Young says. "We draw students from Vail, Sahuarita, Flowing Wells and there are other districts we could potentially draw from."
At the site, Young added Intermountain will also offer respite for after school and on weekends and some educational day programs for students who are home. This school year, she hopes 30 to 40 students they worked with last year return, as well as 10 to 12 students in the new autism classrooms.
Cyndee Wing, Intermountain's new autism teacher, says it's important for area school districts to know Intermountain is not there to compete for special education students, but often works with the districts when they've made a referral.
"Look, we are just trying to provide a service for kids who, for whatever reason, aren't well integrated into their own schools," Wing says.
"Our model is to create an environment that works for the children rather than force the child to fit in the environment."
Wing says the autism classrooms will use positive reinforcement and align curriculum with the common core standards as much as possible. Classroom aides will also be part of the structure, one-on-one if that is in the child's Individual Education Plan, or IEP, or possibly one aide per two students.
Intermountain Academy Principal Jacqueline Lynch, a former longtime TUSD employee, says the new school had to get accredited through the North Central Association, which is required in order to get referrals from other school districts.
"It's a liabilities issue, so they can feel safe when they send someone to us for a restrictive placement," Lynch says.
Transportation is usually provided by school districts if there is a referral, but those who attend the school on their own are responsible for their own transportation. Lynch says Intermountain sometimes can work with families if there are transportation issues, especially if the student has received other Intermountain services.