Shelby Doyle: Your school has been written about in Fayetteville Observer, Cityview, and other local news outlets. I think a lot of schools don’t realize that the local news wants to tell their story to families who’d be interested. So I’d love to hear a little bit more about how you found those opportunities and whether that an intimidating process to you?
Amy Sparks: Well, I am the type of person that if I don’t have the answer, I’m going to find out who does. And I’m not going to stop until I find that person… Back to your question, I am going to find people who know people. And so because I’ve taught a long time, I’ve learned, met a lot of people. I get on the phone and I call somebody and say, “Hey, do you know such and such?” And they say, “Oh yeah, by the way, I have a friend that works at ABC.” So ABC News came to the School of Hope, and they did a story about us, and about how we need funding. Because without the Opportunity Scholarship, the Disability Grant, the Educational Savings Program, there would be no School of Hope. Because about 95% of our students that attend here have those grants. And that’s what makes it possible.
Shelby: How are you able to ensure students who need your school have the opportunity to come?
Amy: As a matter of fact, we had a lady come to us this year who met us a couple of years ago at the fair, and [her child] did not have a diagnosis of autism at that time. And of course, I look at children right away, and I can pick them out quickly. I saw the signs, and I saw things, and I said, “This may be a route that you might want to take.” She did and listened, and she said, “Amy, everything you said was right. Thank you so much for helping us.” And so we’re not only here as a school, we’re here in this community to help parents be advocates for their children, because so many parents don’t know how to be advocates, and they need someone to teach them. I have people come in the school all the time, and ask me to help them with an IEP to help them with resources that they don’t even know about. Even military families, that should know about Exceptional Family Member Program and the ECHO Program that could pay for school, but they’re not being informed.
Shelby: What do you think are some misconceptions about what a day in the life of a child with autism at school is?
Amy: People have a misconception that sometimes this is a babysitting service. This is not a daycare. This is a school. We are teaching children.
Many times parents… see autistic children on videos all day, on a smart board all day, back in a corner doing nothing all day, not engaged with other people. And it upsets me greatly because I know that deep down inside our children, they can learn.
I tell our staff all the time here, a child is not going to stop being autistic. So if we are not reaching a child, then we have to change our methods. Because we had to find what makes them tick so that we can reach them, and have that opportunity to see someone come to life basically. And I’ve seen it happen here. Last year we had a little boy in kindergarten who is nonverbal. I had the opportunity and the privilege of hearing him say my name for the first time last year, and I about lost it, and now he’s talking. He didn’t even swing on a swing, now he swings. He didn’t play with his friends, he didn’t interact with folks, now he plays chase outside and tag with his friends.
Shelby: How do you find the right teachers for the school?
Amy: What’s so cool about our school is not only… people say, “Well, do they have a degree in education?” That’s not always what I’m looking for, and let me explain. All of our teachers have degrees. We have two teachers that have a master’s in psychology, and they have a wealth of knowledge in ABA therapy. You can have all the education you want, you can have a PhD. But if you don’t know and have experience working with children who have autism, your titles don’t do anything. They don’t help you. And so that’s what really helped me. It was like me becoming a brand new teacher when I taught here.
Shelby: What are some of the benefits of having a school community designed around this particular group of students?
Amy: Well, parents say to us all the time, “My kids love school for the first time. My kids have friends for the first time. My kids got invited to a birthday party for the first time.” And it’s a lot of first, and we get to be a part of the first, and that’s really special for most. Some of these kids were never included, never given that opportunity to be in a Christmas program. And then you look over and you see moms, and dads, and grandparents crying because their kid got to be in a Christmas program.
Shelby Doyle is director of communications and external relations at National School Choice Week and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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