Parma creates unique school for students with autism to keep them in the district

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Posted at 5:00 PM, Mar 28, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-28 20:43:09-04

PARMA, Ohio — The most recent data shows that about 1 in every 44 children in the United States is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.

For many families, it can be a challenge to decide the best fit for their child’s education — public, private, home, or charter schools.

In the hallway of the ACES Center for Education, these words serve as a reminder:

“Every student can learn. Just not on the same day, or in the same way.”

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Children at ACES Center for Education in Parma.

ACES stands for accept, champion, educate, and support.

It is a unique school for students with autism within the Parma City School District — allowing kids like six-year-old Robert a chance to be in the same public school system with his sister and his neighbors.

“If it wasn’t for this place, where would Robert be?,” reporter Homa Bash asked his mother, Shannon Burrelli.

“He’d be at home with me, honestly. I really did not want to send him to kindergarten before I found out about this place,” Burrelli answered.

Because what happens when a public school district can’t meet the needs of a student with a disability is that they get “outplaced” — sent to a private or charter school.

“And I have talked to several other parents outside of our district who said they don’t have this stuff, they’re paying for it. How they’re paying for it, I don’t know, because it is very very expensive to send them to private schools,” Burrelli said.

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Children at ACES Center for Education in Parma.

ACES was built into what used to be old classrooms at Parma High School, created with thought behind every space. A padded “volcano room” for big emotions. A sensory room with lava lamps and lights to explore. And a motor gym where you can express yourself in ways you can’t other places.

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A padded “volcano room” for big emotions.

“Our regular classes couldn’t always meet the needs of our students so we wanted to be able to keep our Parma kids in Parma schools,” said Kim Tomco-Karaffa, an intervention specialist.

She has been an educator for more than two decades, working with students with special needs.

Before ACES was created in the 2020-2021 school year, students with autism in the Parma school district were often educated in small group settings.

“That fit most of the kids needs, but some of our kids just needed individualized attention,” Tomco-Karaffa explained. “More consistency, more routine, more structure.”

There are only 15 students enrolled in ACEES right now, grades K through 6th, with each child getting that individualized one-on-one attention.

“As the saying goes, when you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism,” said Shawn Henry, the executive director of OCALI, the Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence.

The statewide center has an international reach to support educators, families, and students with autism.

ACES was inspired after seeing the only other public school district in Northeast Ohio with a special school for autism — Mentor Cares.

It started in 2011 with just six kids — and now is at full capacity with 72 students and a waitlist of 25.

“I think the learning happens on both sides - it happens with the student having a better experience, but our community is better because we are more accepting and understanding,” Henry said.

A little acceptance and understanding go a long way.

Robert is nonverbal. He was diagnosed with autism at 18 months old.

But here at ACES, day by day, his mom says she sees his spark growing.

“He just loves coming to school. A very active little boy,” Burrelli said. “I know my son is safe here.”

And we as parents know — that’s what matters most.

While only Parma residents can attend ACES, the state of Ohio’s education department does offer an “autism scholarship” to allow parents to send their child to a special program or school if needed.

You can click here for more details on how to apply.

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