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Pasco charter school for children with autism faces closure

The company managing Pasco County's charter school for children with autism has decided to abandon the year-old school, citing concerns over low enrollment and future financial viability.

Orlando-based nonprofit Quest Inc. also is considering the future of a sister school in Tampa.

John Dester, whose son Nicholas attends Florida Autism Center of Excellence-Pasco near Zephyrhills, couldn't be more upset.

"Every single student in that school progressed in one way or another," he said. "Now it's not going to be available for any of them."

Quest Inc., which runs therapy, training and residential programs for people with disabilities, has alerted the Pasco school, also known by its acronym FACE, that it will end its relationship with the school at the close of the academic year. Quest had pledged to underwrite the school's deficits while ramping up, which district officials saw as key to guaranteeing its financial viability.

But in a letter to the FACE-Pasco board of directors, Quest CEO John R. Gill wrote that his group would not continue the agreement. Gill took over the organization after the Pasco school was established, and the Quest vice president who oversaw the charter schools has left.

Carrie Walker, the Pasco school's director, also recently submitted a letter of resignation.

"Considering Ms. Walker's resignation, the fact that the school has failed to achieve its enrollment target, the fact that the school will lose approximately $150,000 this year and seems to have significant challenges relative to its ability to continue as a going concern, Quest will end its role as the management company for the school effective June 30, 2014," Gill wrote.

The school's board will make the final call as to whether FACE-Pasco will continue. But board member Carolyn Hodges has low expectations.

"We would like to keep it open, but financially we don't have the seed money," Hodges said. "The management company provided the initial investment."

The school would need "a lot of donations" to remain viable, she said. It missed its first-year enrollment projection of 38, peaking at 22 students, in part because of the school's trouble marketing itself after securing a location late in the summer.

The low numbers hurt the school's bottom line.

FACE-Hillsborough, in its seventh year, has not had such problems. However, director Tiffiany Lassin said, Quest also has indicated its relationship with that campus is tenuous.

The school's lease expires in 2015, Lassin said, and it is expected to have to go its own way afterward.

"Our board is looking at options for our school," she said.

The possibilities include running independently, partnering with another school or finding another management company.

The choices for FACE-Pasco are fewer, given the short notice. Walker said the school might be able to turn around if given adequate time, as more families have begun inquiring about enrollment for the fall.

"We would be able to potentially have enough students next year if we were able to keep it open," said Walker, who said she resigned out of frustration. "It's really sad. … Most of these kids are here because they couldn't go anywhere else."

The Pepin Academies, slated to open in west Pasco in August, serves higher functioning students, Walker said. Some traditional schools have autism programs, she added, but many children at FACE struggled in those.

Dester knows too well how hard it is to find a proper school. Nicholas, 11, faced many setbacks in public school, which lacked services, he said. At FACE, "everything was golden," prompting the family to move to Zephyrhills to be closer, allowing them to volunteer whenever possible.

He dislikes having to seek out another right fit, knowing that change doesn't come easily for children with autism.

"I'm hoping some philanthropist reads this article and says, 'You know what? I'll fund them until they get their feet on the ground,' " Dester said. "We really need somebody's help."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com.

Pasco charter school for children with autism faces closure 04/15/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 15, 2014 8:44pm]

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