This spring, The Els Center of Excellence will conclude its first school year. But for the students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) educated there, the $35-million facility is a year-round partner.
The innovative Center in Jupiter, Florida, near West Palm Beach, is named after professional golfer Ernie Els. He and wife Liezl started The Els for Autism Foundation in 2009, one year after their 5-year-old son Ben was diagnosed with ASD. The state-of-the-art facility was approved by the Palm Beach County Commission under the category of a charter school, and as such it receives 80 percent of its funding from the state with the remainder coming from private donations.
Officials called the school the first in Palm Beach County to solely serve children with autism from first grade through high school, followed by transition to adulthood. Like all charter schools, the Learning Center and the Renaissance Learning Academy schools at The Els Center of Excellence are open to all students ages 3 through 21 who reside in the area.
The entire 100,000-square-foot facility sits on 26 acres and provides a host of services that go well beyond that of a normal campus. Sure, there will be the classrooms and laboratories to go along with the cafeteria, gymnasium, playgrounds, athletic fields and even a heated pool. But The Els Center of Excellence will also provide students with ASD-specific therapy and medical facilities, a sensory garden and an adult services building, even adding on-site housing for the oldest of the 300 students there.
The Els Center of Excellence wouldn’t be complete without a driving range and pitch/putt green. Similarly, it would also not be a world-class educational experience without its own fleet of school buses, albeit a modest one in size.
Pam Minelli heads the school’s grant writing program. She told STN she wrote grants last year to receive federal Section 5310 Program funds available to private, non-profit organizations for public transit, when available local options are unavailable, inadequate or not appropriate for the population that needs service.
She said The Learning Center at The Els Center of Excellence, where younger students attend class, utilizes some of the buses as well as vans for transportation during the school day for attending field trips and local events. These are a part of “Community Inclusion” activities that help to assimilate the students into their local surroundings. Meanwhile, the Renaissance Learning Academy for older students uses buses and vans for transport to and from pre-vocational activities that help prepare for employment after graduation. The school also has a contract with parents to provide transportation to and from school each day.
“Approximately half of the families at the high school and a handful of students at the elementary school choose to have their sons and daughters ride the Palm Tran Connection, a local public transportation for individuals with special needs,” said Toby Honsberger, executive director of the Renaissance Learning Academy.