Groundbreaking for new autism center

Parents and caretakers of students with autism and other mental and emotional diagnoses will now have an extra option for their education, thanks to an expansion at the Green Tree School.

The Mt. Airy-based private school held a groundbreaking last Tuesday on a new, 60,000-square-foot campus at 1196 East Washington Lane, a site that formerly housed the Ivy Leaf School. Organizers say Green Tree’s other schools and buildings will remain open during the construction, which should be wrapped up by September 2013.

The Green Tree School currently enrolls 150 students, many of whom come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

“[The new building will be a] state-of-the-art facility, the type of facility that the children need and deserve. It will create a great environment for faculty and staff, and serve as a classroom environment for our special education and health education programs, which La Salle University will offer,” said Green Tree School executive board member William Smith, who also sits on the school’s new building committee. “We start construction this week, and the trucks and backhoes are already on site. We go to closing [later in the week] and we’ll get rolling.”

Green Tree currently operates out of five buildings that house the upper and lower schools that work with children who are at various stages along the spectrum of autism, and some of the students have emotional challenges that cannot be properly addressed in the mainstream academic environment, Smith said. The school has also partnered with several institutions in the neighborhood, and, Smith said, will offer construction and entry-level employment opportunities to neighborhood residents.

“What’s important to us is that the community is aware; we are working with four community groups to keep them apprised of what’s going on at Green Tree,” Smith said. “We have a self-imposed target of 25 percent minority and Women Business Enterprise participation, so health contracts on the project must be 25 percent or better.

“And that’s not a mandate; we wanted to do it.”

The new building will boast several amenities, including vocational skills centers, sensory rooms, movement spaces, high-tech studios, numerous safe areas, including time-out rooms and safe time-out spaces. The building will also house a therapy suite, several single-student rooms and rooms for de-escalation, therapy and life training.

And schools such as Green Tree are needed, considering the Center for Disease Control not only estimated an overall increase in the number of autistic school children — and that the majority of that increase is due to a jump in autism diagnosis in the minority demographic.

And even though Green Tree is teaching to capacity, it shouldn’t sway interested caregivers from contacting the school to place their child.

“I would suggest they contact Green Tree School, let them know you are interested, and then visit the campus and meet with key staff who will then talk about the programs, to make sure the student is the right fit for the school, but more importantly, to make sure the school is the fit for the student,” Smith said. “We have a very dedicated executive board, and the staff has a great formula for working with the community.

“That is the recipe for the successes Green Tree School has had.”