Sunday, May 20, 2018
Education

Pasco family pushes to keep open charter school for children with autism

ZEPHYRHILLS

Chris and Tammi Dester keep a blue binder filled with school reports about their son Nicholas.

The couple frown as they review papers from his last year in a special education classroom at Explorer K-8 in Spring Hill. They note his behavior problems, his unwillingness to do work, his poor grades.

Then they flip to documents from his year at Florida Autism Center of Excellence-Pasco. He won citizen of the month, received positive behavior marks and earned all A's in the third grading period, exceeding his parents' wildest dreams.

These signs reassure the Desters that they made the right choice to move to Zephyrhills, so Nicholas could attend the charter school that opened in August.

If only the school that they searched high and low to find weren't threatened with closure.

The charter school's directors said they would shut down the campus serving 21 children, after management company Quest Inc. announced it would walk away because of low enrollment and financial debt.

After an outcry, the board gave families two months to seek alternatives, including working with two private schools that have indicated an interest in taking over.

The Desters have their fingers crossed.

"Schools just for autistic children are very hard to come by," said Tammi Dester, who does not work so she can care for Nicholas. "Everything is on hold."

Added 11-year-old Nicholas: "I would just love to have my school back. ... I love my school so much."

The family knows what it's like to feel adrift.

It's how they felt when Nicholas was first diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder, at the low-functioning end of the autism spectrum. He was 2, still did not talk, associate with others or allow himself to be touched.

"The doctor said, 'Do your homework. There are support groups out there. Good luck,' " Chris Dester recalled. "We were at square one."

The family learned to cope, and to advocate for Nicholas, as they endured a string of health and academic issues.

They dealt with his allergy to high fructose and his sensitivity to sounds such as the buzz of fluorescent lights. They all but stopped going out to eat rather than have to explain his outbursts to patrons at other tables.

Finding a babysitter for alone time was just about impossible, except for family members.

Securing an acceptable school proved equally vexing.

"When it comes to specialized, targeted training … the public schools are just not equipped," Chris Dester said.

In Hernando County, they tried a classroom for children with varying types of disabilities, he explained, noting that a program for children with autism was not available. Nicholas would get out of the classroom and run, he said. One time, after being blocked from leaving, he flipped all the furniture in his classroom.

Meanwhile, Tammi Dester added, the school's individualized education plan for their son did not target his specific needs.

Nicholas, who has since been rediagnosed with Aspergers at the high-performing end of the autism spectrum, said he looks back and sees the problems.

"The teachers basically just knew how to teach regular kids," he said.

His parents' final straw came when they responded to a call from the school, and discovered Nicholas wandering off school grounds, with the principal following him.

Even after learning about FACE-Pasco, they remained skeptical. They'd drive more than an hour each way to drop off Nicholas, watch his interactions with teachers for a while, go home, and then return to get him at the end of the day.

"In beginning the move, he was very afraid — rightfully so," Tammi Dester said. "But he quickly realized they were all on the same page. They understood him."

"The first day, I had friends," Nicholas said.

The family was so pleased with the program that they gave up their home in Spring Hill and moved to a rental in Zephyrhills.

It meant sacrificing work — Chris Dester said he lost his carpentry job because of transportation and timing issues. It forced their older son Christopher and his family to relocate, too, because they help with the care.

But with Nicholas blossoming, they never gave the move a second thought.

The therapies that FACE-Pasco uses for children work, Chris Dester said. He believes that if Nicholas had been in this program since he entered school, he might be ready to be mainstreamed by high school.

Nicholas, who loves playing with his rabbit and baby chickens, hopes to be a veterinarian.

So the Desters are spearheading efforts to keep the school open, so Nicholas and others can prosper and seek their dreams.

"We are a team," Chris Dester said. "We're going to fight together, and we're going to figure it out. It's basically what we've done since he was born."

The Florida Autism Center of Excellence board meets again May 7 to further discuss its options.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected]

   
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