By Caroline Boras
Students with autism in Loudoun County’s Public Schools will see changes in their programming this fall. The school system was selected to participate in a Virginia Commonwealth University project meant to better equip them for life after high school.
The school system’s autism specialists applied for the project in January.
“As much as we have some major strengths, we recognize we have room to grow,” said Director of Special Education Suzanne Jimenez. “Our population increases every year, so our efforts increase every year.”
Of the Loudoun school system’s more than 76,000 students enrolled in 2015-16, 1,217 received services for autism. More than 11 percent of the county’s students receive some sort of special education support.
With George Washington University’s Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders Institute coming to the county this fall, LCPS is in a place where it needs to expand its knowledge base and improve its training, said Jimenez.
“This is a great opportunity for us to learn and turn around and be leaders [in education]. We stand to gain and learn,” she said. “Not to exaggerate, but Loudoun is an epicenter for autism right now.”
The project will span three years. It will begin with a self-assessment and the formation of an autism services improvement team to develop a plan of action. That plan will outline the support LCPS needs from VCU, from mentoring and coaching Loudoun school staff members to providing professional development. VCU staff will also visit Loudoun through the duration of the project.
“LCPS was selected because they are doing very well and have tremendous room for growth,” said Carol Schall, a professor who works at VCU’s Autism Center for Excellence. “The purpose of this project is to increase the provision of evidence-based practices for children and youth with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) in Virginia Public Schools.”
She said Loudoun has “good infrastructure and a well-articulated desire to improve their services for children and youth with ASD.”
All the county’s public schools are participating in the project. Joy Engstrom, one of the autism specialists who helped apply for this project, said over the next three years, the focus may shift to specific programs at specific schools. But the plan is to improve programs countywide.
“Our focus when we put together the application and met with VCU is really on building sustainable programs,” Engstrom said. “And really building the capacity of our teachers within those programs and within those schools to serve the students that are there.”
All the middle and high schools have specialized staff and programs to accommodate students with autism. At the elementary level, the students are assigned to one of 23 schools that house autism programs.
“I do think we do a good job of ensuring that programs and schools have the staff they need to adequately support their students,” Engstrom said.
Loudoun parent Deana Czaban has seen the special education programs in the county improve over the past 12 years. Her daughter, now a junior at Woodgrove High School, has been in the special education system since first grade.
“Overall, our experience has been excellent,” Czaban said. “We’ve always found a way to make it work.”
Czaban said her daughter, Catherine, had to move schools eight times to follow the special education programs when she was younger, but said they worked with LCPS staff to get Catherine the education she needed.
Czaban serves on the Special Education Advisory Committee’s Autism Subcommittee, which helps identify the unmet needs of students with autism. She said she is excited for the support the VCU project will bring to the county.
“Autism is a spectrum disorder, so there’s a wide range of abilities and challenges,” she said. “Anything we can do to enhance our program to better meet those diverse needs is a huge benefit to the county.”
The preparations for the project began in April. Jamilah Anderson, one of the autism specialists who wrote the application, said they are still in the process of identifying the autism services team.
“The core team will include the autism services supervisor and two specialists,” Anderson said. “And there is a larger team that will include school-based personnel, like service providers, general education teachers.”
Engstrom said the group will be “a comprehensive team of individuals who will bring their different perspectives into the process.”
The team will work over the summer to get ready for next school year, which begins in August.
“It’s an exciting time to be able to create some sustainable change and really continue to improve the level of services we can offer our students,” Anderson said. “We’re looking forward to the process and excited to collaborate with our various stakeholders—both internal and external—to really continue to improve what we do here.”
Caroline Boras is an intern for Loudoun Now. She’s studying journalism and Russian studies at Washington & Lee University.