Closure of school for autistic children a blow for students, parents


Highlights

The Hector E. Ponce Academy in Cedar Park ran out of money.

Parents said the academy provided services that public schools could not.

David Hall said his 16-year-old son stopped having emotional meltdowns after he started going to a new school for autistic teenagers that opened at the end of August in Cedar Park. Evelyn Kelley said teachers at the school, the Hector E. Ponce Academy, helped her autistic 17-year-old son learn to speak more.

But the private school closed Dec. 26 after only four months of operation because it ran out of money. Tina Ponce, the founder and director of the school, said two anonymous donors had pledged to give through February but she learned over the Christmas break that they couldn’t provide any more funds.

Ponce, a speech-language pathologist, said the school for grades six through 12 at 901 Cypress Creek Road provided not only educational opportunities for students, but also had music therapy, physical education and training in job skills.

“It’s heartbreaking because we were in the middle of an explosion in learning and opportunity for these kids,” she said.

The school needs about $200,000 to reopen, she said.

The school is exploring ways to possibly reopen, including starting a gofundme fundraising page at bit.ly/2jAGOez and asking the city of Cedar Park for help, said Gary Massey, one of the school’s board members. He said the academy has had inquiries from as far away as Saudi Arabia from parents interested in sending their children there.

If it had remained open, Massey said, the school was going to work with companies, including Dell and Apple, to provide internships for students, he said. “We wanted to make sure autistic kids have a future,” he said.

Hall and Kelley said the closing of the school has left them devastated.

“I cried for two days,” said Kelley. “There’s nothing else out there for my son’s age.”

She said teachers in public schools didn’t have time to work one-on-one with the device her son uses to help him speak.

The teachers at the Hector Ponce Academy all worked with her son and the voice device, she said, and “now he’s speaking a lot more.”

Hall said the academy integrated therapy with academics in a way public schools couldn’t do. “One of the things you see in autistic kids is that as they get older, they tend to get overwhelmed and have meltdowns,” he said.

Before his son attended the school, he had meltdowns three to five times a week, Hall said: “He hasn’t had a meltdown in four months now. The school changed not just him but the dynamics of our family.”

Both Hall and Kelley have since sent their sons back to public schools.

The academy had 10 students and 11 teachers, said Ponce, who started it after spending 17 years in private practice as a speech-language pathologist. The school, named after her father, who made the initial contribution so she could open the academy, had to operate at least a year to qualify for a grant from a foundation, she said.



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