Program Supports Students with Autism and Emotional Challenges
New educational gear in the new year should help PACE students get back to their regular schools faster.
At least that’s the hope of teachers and the supervisor at the school for autistic and emotionally challenged students in the former Middlesex Elementary School at 116 Browns Hill Road.
Kelly Carter Uzzo, marketing communications manager for the private special education program, said PACE has just finished installing new interactive technology in three classrooms for the school’s current 17 students in kindergarten through sixth grade.
“The kids that come to us are on the autism spectrum or have emotional and behavioral issues,” said Uzzo. “They are essentially struggling learners in their schools, whether they are being bullied or struggling in a normal learning environment emotionally.”
“We have a ton of technology, iPads, interactive technology. It allows kids hands-on learning,” Uzzo said. “We do teach social skills and blend them into real-life situations. We stress education as well. It is the behavior that is holding them back, not a learning disability.”
“It’s been amazing the engagement level of the kids,” said Uzzo.
“Each of the classrooms has three iPads and the teachers all have one. Teachers and students use them for reinforcement, and students use them for independent study for reading and math,” said Cheryl Popatak, supervisor and behavioral health liaison.
“When they have earned their daily points they can use them as they like for play and educational games,” said Popatak.
“It’s part of the daily routine,” said Popatak.
“Our kids are all using this stuff. We want to make sure they are going on and not just getting on,” Uzzo said. “We are on the Internet but mostly to see what we need to block. We have some serious network guards for the Internet.”
Uzzo confessed that she’s not the most tech-savvy person herself.
“PACE is on Facebook. I try to tweet, I do because I have to, but I still don’t follow it,” said Uzzo.
Uzzo said she hopes the new equipment will speed the school’s mission to get its students back in their regular classrooms again.
Students come to PACE, Uzzo said, when they have exhausted the special education programs or the therapeutic support services of their school districts.
The students in Valencia come from seven school districts: Butler, Armstrong, South Butler, Deer Lakes, Mars, Seneca Valley and Avonworth in Allegheny County.
Uzzo said student behavior runs the gamut. “We get kids that just clam up, and then we have kids that can’t stay in their seats. They are very hyper.”
Uzzo said each class has a special-education teacher, a classroom assistant and, on occasion, personal care assistants that work one-on-one with students.
Students are divided into an autistic support class, kindergarten through second grade and third through sixth grade.
Uzzo said, “The goal is always to get kids back to their schools.”
Students stay as little as six months, but the average time is two and half years.
“The goal is to have a return to normalcy. There may be a stigma attached to going here, but we are trying very hard, and it seems to be working to overturn that,” said Uzzo.
Uzzo said trauma leading to emotional problems could be the result of the child witnessing an act of violence, suffering abuse, watching parents divorce or something as simple as a disappointment or setback at school.
“One of the things I have learned is trauma affects everyone differently. What’s trauma for me is not trauma for you. We don’t have a grasp as to what trauma would affect what person,” said Uzzo.
Popatak said she’s always willing to speak with parents who may have concerns about their children and give them tours of the school. She can be contacted at 724-903-0083.
This is the fourth year PACE has been at Valencia, but PACE itself has been in existence for 45 years. Uzzo said it’s classified as a private academic school, but most of its funding for tuition comes from the students’ school districts. Some parents pay tuition as well.
Its main campus is in Churchill, which takes students from 55 districts in seven counties. PACE has an in-district classroom in Moon Township.
Popatak said PACE is looking to expand in Valencia and offer classes to seventh- and eighth-graders and has applied to do so with the Pa. Department of Education.