Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Autism school opening in Warren


Staff Writer

WARREN -- Main Street can be a very strange place to the growing number of New Jersey children diagnosed with autism.

Now, a new year-round school for children with autism -- created to meet the growing demand in Central Jersey -- combines academic skills with an education in daily life on its own indoor "Main Street," complete with a grocery store, bank, barber shop and apartment.

The Warren Developmental Learning Center, run by the Morris-Union Jointure Commission, will open to students June 27. At a grand opening ceremony and open house Tuesday of the facility on King George and Mountain View roads, parents, educators and sponsors came face to face with the center's offerings, including Main Street, two pools, classrooms, a gymnasium and green design elements such as geothermal heating, an environmentally conscious layout, energy-efficient lighting and more.

"I can't believe it -- this place is incredible," said Roberta Polak of Budd Lake in Morris County, who came with her husband, Bill, to check out the place where their son, Will, 6, will begin school this summer.

The family has been searching for a school for Will since October 2006, but most autism-friendly schools in the area -- public and private -- are at capacity. Will's 45-minute commute to the center is preferable to the alternatives, and at the new facility, he'll learn things that will make the whole family's life better, his mother said.

"It's so hard to take him to regular stores -- you never know whether he's going to have a good day or a bad day," she said. Now, he'll get practice -- and that could help a lot, she said.

Benjamin Ferry, 8, of Fanwood, who starts school June 27, said of the school, "It's great!"

At the opening ceremony, Benjamin sang "Side by Side" with Patrick Gillison, 7, of East Orange, who attends the commission's Union Township school.

At the ceremony, Kim Coleman, the commission's superintendent, presented Champion for Autism awards to Helen Hoens, a New Jersey Supreme Court Justice whose son, Charles, now 22, is autistic; Deirdre Imus of the Deirdre Imus Environmental Center for Pediatric Oncology (accepted by managing director Bonnie Eskenazi); Vernon Hill, chairman of the board and president of Commerce Bank; and his wife, Shirley Hill, of InterArch, the firm that designed the small Commerce Bank inside the school.

The Morris-Union Jointure Commission serves 28 school districts in Somerset, Hunterdon, Union, Morris and Essex counties. Its primary role is to provide school programming for more than 300 children with autism in Central and North Jersey.

The commission has other schools in Kenilworth, New Providence and Union Township but started the Warren school in part because of a capacity issue. Many students were coming from Berkeley Heights and westward, so the commission needed a facility in Somerset County, Coleman said earlier this month.

The 167,000-square-foot, $41.4 million facility sits on 18.7 acres at 217 Mountain View Road and will offer daytime education, applied behavior analysis and activities to more than 100 students in June for the summer session of its year-round programming. The school has the capacity to serve about twice that many, said Janet Parmelee, assistant superintendent of the commission.

The school will be separated by a combination of age and ability level into ages 3 to 7, 8 to 12, and 13 to 21.

The school's miniature Main Street contains smaller, fully operational versions of area businesses, donated by the business owners themselves -- a Commerce Bank with a working ATM, a hardware store built by Warrenville Hardware and Berkeley Heights Hardware, a barber shop and salon sponsored by Carmen's, a hair salon in New Providence; a small diner that will serve as the cafeteria; a convenience-store-sized Shop-Rite; and a plant nursery.

Main Street also contains an "apartment" where students can learn daily chores such as cooking, doing laundry and making the bed.

The school's base tuition is more than $67,000, including speech therapy, occupational therapy and adapted physical education for about 37 hours per week, 42 weeks per year. Tuition is paid by sending school districts, and the school receives no direct federal or state aid -- in other words, if people want their children to attend, they have to discuss it with their local Board of Education.

The education they will receive at the center is unlike programs anywhere else, said Principal Barbara Starling, who is leaving her post as one of the administrators at the Union school to come to Warren.

"This is a more natural education that replicates the community environment," she said. "It's a much more effective way to teach them in the context of eating, the cafeteria, the apartment. ... We can work on leisure skills, daily living skills and academics simultaneously and in a lot of different settings."

Celanie Polanick can be reached at (908) 707-3137 or at

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