Saturday, February 24, 2018
Education

Pasco families find new school for their children with autism

ZEPHYRHILLS — Families seeking a replacement for Florida Autism Center of Excellence-Pasco, a charter school that closed without warning, have found a new place for their children to go.

The Monarch School of Lakeland, which focuses on children with autism, expects to sign a lease to open in Zephyrhills later this week.

It will operate at Zephyrhills First Assembly Church, just a short distance from the shuttered FACE-Pasco, which had run out of Agape Baptist Church on Chancey Road.

"I'm almost certain it will happen. It's just not finalized at this point," Pastor Charles Crank said. "It looks like we can be a blessing to them by providing facilities."

Less than a month ago, parents were not sure where their children would attend classes.

Quest Inc., which managed FACE-Pasco, abruptly announced it would walk away from the school after its first year, taking its expertise and monetary support away from the financially struggling campus. The charter school's board of directors planned to close the site and walk away, but parents begged for time to find alternatives that wouldn't uproot their children, for whom change does not come easily.

"We kind of went from A to Z on each option to see which would be the best fit for our kids," said Chris Dester, whose son Nicholas attends the school.

The consensus choice at first was HOPE Youth Ranch in Hudson, he said. But its negotiations with Agape Baptist broke down, leaving Monarch as the next best option.

Parents had concerns about Monarch's teacher certification guidelines, and also worried that they could not afford the difference between state McKay scholarships and the school's tuition. After working out those problems to most everyone's satisfaction, they turned to the place.

The families wanted to remain near Zephyrhills, but the original spot wasn't working out. So they scoured the area for a site that could become a school quickly.

Zephyrhills First Assembly popped up. It used to have a school, but the buildings had been empty for months.

Things fell into place from there.

"We're cautiously optimistic," Dester said Wednesday. "We certainly are going to fund raise like crazy to make sure that this school remains self-sustainable. The parents are heavily invested."

He had nothing but praise for Monarch, HOPE and other organizations that reached out to offer alternatives to the families after FACE-Pasco's demise. "All they did was listen to us, hear our cry and come to help," he said.

Dester said his son, who loves animals, was saddened that HOPE Youth Ranch wouldn't be coming. He had looked forward to horse therapy, a feature of HOPE that Monarch doesn't offer.

"But he is happy he has a place to learn," Dester said.

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