Special-needs school making a difference

Each morning as she prepares her son, Luke, for school, Virginia Mazucco discusses with him what will happen throughout his day. Luke, 12, has severe autism, is legally blind in one eye and has various other issues.

But Luke is verbal and chatters along with Virginia, often repeating what she has said. His voice rises and falls with excitement as they discuss the day’s plans. “He likes to know exactly what is going to happen,” Virginia said.
Special-needs-school-making-a-difference
Esther’s School opened in Pinellas County in 2005 after owner Esther Berry realized the need for an alternative educational approach for children who learn differently. Her son, born with Down syndrome, had excelled in a one-on-one instructional environment when Berry decided to home-school him. The school opened five new campuses in 2014, one of which is in Hudson. KIM DAME

He hasn’t always been this talkative, she said. In fact, she noticed a more vibrant personality since he started at his new school in August. “I have seen so many wonderful changes in him.”

Previously, Luke had attended public school where Virginia felt something was missing. Though he seemed content, her gut told her he could do more.

Every parent with an exceptional child wonders how far they might reach if given the right kind of guidance. Yet resources for children who learn differently, particularly those with autism, aren’t widely available.

Esther’s School, a private Christian-based education center for children with learning challenges, became an option for residents in North Pasco and Hernando County when it opened a fifth campus on Countyline Road.

While still in the transitional phase, the Hudson Campus is growing as its availability becomes known. Its concept, grounded when the original Esther’s School opened in St. Petersburg in 2005, has a proven track record and a solid following.

Esther’s School does not work out of traditional classrooms. Instead of a group environment where an instructor lectures, students work independently at their own speed and level with teacher interaction and guidance as needed.

Each child in the school has some exceptionality. Some have several. And administrators understand their quirks, sensory needs, aversions and behavior triggers, and know which prompts encourage performance.

More curriculum-capable students work on assignments. Others, like Luke, attend Life Skills classes where they work one-on-one with a teacher on sitting quietly, personal hygiene, self control, impulse control, etc.

Students are given expectations based on their individual level of understanding. Unlike traditional public education, students at Esther’s School aren’t expected to conform to the group. They are encouraged to be individuals.

The concept works because the staff has experience with such children. In fact, Esther’s School was founded on the premise that all children, no matter their challenges, can learn with patience, understanding and a commitment to find what works for each child.

Myra Chavis, Esther’s School business manager, told how Esther’s School came to be. It’s owners, Esther and Chris Berry, became aware of challenges faced by autistic children when their fifth biological child was born with Down syndrome. After hitting roadblocks while searching for a Christian school where he could thrive, and being told he never would be self-reliant, the Berrys decided to home-school him.

Esther took on two more children, and the school was created. Her son since has graduated with a special diploma and now works for Publix.

Realizing how many children with learning challenges get lost in the traditional school environment, Esther’s School continued to offer an alternative by broadening into five new campuses for a total of six.

They include Pinellas Park, Bradenton, New Port Richey, Hudson, Zephyrhills and Kissimmee.

The school takes McKay and Stepup for Students scholarships, which are currently accepting applications. Chavis encouraged anyone interested in learning more to contact her and she will provide needed information without obligation. The school currently is enrolling for the 2015-2016 school year.

Hudson opened with a commitment and a prayer, growing slowly to accommodate the need. Joel King, the Hudson Campus principal and Luke’s teacher, chose special education because he had a direct understanding of the challenges of trying to fit in. Diagnosed with ADD, King said he always felt like a square peg in a round hole.

“I had to learn to sink or swim,” he said.

King has a unique ability to reach his students. “That is what grows my passion,” he said. “We can reach every child. We just have to figure out how.”

For more information, contact Esther’s School at (727) 544-4700 or visit the website at www.esther school.net.

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