June 16, 2008

Laborof Love: Local Women Start Autism School in Lynn Haven

By Donna Vavala, The News Herald, Panama City, Fla.

Jun. 16--When Cindy Bacot's son, Nicholas, was diagnosed with autism in 2000, she could not help but get interested in the disability that makes it very difficult for those afflicted to learn.

Bacot (pronounced BAY-co) decided she wanted to start a school devoted to reaching children with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental delays.

"The time was never right until 1 1/2 years ago," Bacot said. "It took me that long to find the right location and put teachers in place."

The freestanding building that will be used for the academy is in Lynn Haven, on the corner of 12th Street and State 77. It will open in August and follow the public school calendar.

The exterior of the building belies its 2,600 square feet of space. There are 10 rooms, three restrooms, a kitchen and two offices. The best part is that the owner, who does not wish to be identified, has leased the building to the academy for five years for free and will offer an option to buy after that.

"It used to be a beauty salon," Bacot said, indicating the long cabinet along one wall that used to be beauty stations. Now, the counter holds computers.

The small classrooms have handpainted murals featuring jungle scenes, and Bacot is hanging wallpaper with an underwater theme in the main room. Walls are being painted, carpets are being cleaned and a fenced playground is planned for a portion of the parking lot behind the building.

The renovations are coming from the school owners' pockets, and they're doing the work themselves.

"It's a labor of love," Bacot said.

Bacot, a social worker, partnered with Susan Thomas, who has taught in public schools for 30 years, and has a master's degree in mental health counseling. They hired three teachers and plan to cap enrollment at 10 children in grades one through seven. Bacot said she wants to keep the teacher-student ratio low for ultimate learning.

"Every student that comes in will have an assessment done to determine their current skills," she said. "We will use the applied behavior analysis, which is the only scientifically approved educational treatment for autistic children. It addresses education, social skills and functional skills. The higher-functioning kids will have access to computers."

The academy also will utilize Switched on Schoolhouse programs, which offer three-dimensional multimedia video clips to capture the children's attention.

"The best thing about it is, the program won't let them move on until they have mastered a program," Bacot said. "Our whole mission is to give the children the skills they need to go back into the classroom. We don't want to keep these kids long-term."

The academy will provide speech, occupational therapy and other services through local agencies.

Tuition is set at $15,000 a year, which Bacot said is the average amount the state's McKay Scholarships are worth that fund tuition for special education students. The school is in the process of obtaining a 501(C)3 status, and Bacot said she wants to get the school accredited.

A commercial-size van will be available to take students on field trips to places such as the Junior Museum, Gulf World, local parks and the mall, where they will learn how to purchase items and make change. Bacot said fundraisers will be held to finance the trips.

Although public schools offer autism programs, Bacot said she believes there will be a demand for her school's services.

"I've already gotten an e-mail and a zillion phone calls, so I really think we're going to have a waiting list before you know it," Bacot said.

Bacot is happy her son, now 12, will be a student at her school, but she said he has mixed feelings about it.

"He said, 'Mom, I don't think it's a good idea to spend so much time together,'" Bacot said.


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