Creating a Sense of Community in Northeast Tennessee & Southwest Virginia

MEET LUCAS. 14 years old, 6ft 2ins, loves playing golf, computer games, and reading cartoons.

MEET TOM. Also 14, significantly shorter at 5ft, loves trains, computer games, and cats.

They sound like any other pair of typical teenage boys, but they have one thing in common, which sets them apart from the majority of their peers: they are part of the “1 in 68” statistic.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 1 in 68 children are being diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. It is the fastest growing developmental disorder, yet sadly for those children, one of the most underfunded and under resourced. For boys, the statistics are even more stark with 1 in 42 being diagnosed; for reasons that are not entirely clear, autism is far more prevalent in boys than girls.

Autism brings significant challenges for the child and the family. Children have great difficulty with social communication and in building social relationships. They also exhibit restrictive and repetitive patterns of behavior, often having obsessive interests. Autism is frequently accompanied by other medical diagnoses such as anxiety disorder, OCD, and epilepsy.

Most children with autism have significant sensory issues and can be highly reactive to smells, sounds, tastes, light, and movement. Bearing this in mind, it is hardly surprising that students with autism find school such a challenging environment. As researchers Bashe & Kirby (2001) put it:

If asked to design an environment specifically geared to stress a person with autism, you would probably come up with something that looked a lot like a school.

You would want an overwhelming number of peers; periods of tightly structured activity alternating with periods lacking any structure at all; regular helpings of irritating noise from bells, school mates, band practice, alarms, and cavernous spaces; a dozen or so daily transitions with a few surprises thrown in now and then; and finally, the piece de resistance: regularly scheduled tours in to what can only be described as the socialization nightmare– aka recess, lunch, and gym.

So what happens when a child with autism cannot cope with the typical school environment? What other options are available to them? Sadly, as Lucas Lowe’s mother, Amy, discovered, there are almost no alternatives. “It was either stay in public schooling or homeschool, there was nothing else offered in this region.” It’s not that public schools aren’t trying to cope with students with autism, they are. Thanks to dedicated and passionate teachers, some students progress through public school relatively smoothly. However, for others it can be an entirely different story.

Autism parent, Jo Cullen, has witnessed this first hand. “As the parent of a child with autism, and also having been a public school teacher and school principal, I have seen it from both perspectives. Schools do the best they can, but their training and resources are limited; the curriculum is not designed, delivered, or tested in a way that matches the learning styles of students with autism. Too many students on the autism spectrum fail to graduate high school and then what happens to them? They have neither the skills nor the qualifications to obtain a job and achieve independence. This has to change.”

13-year-old Luke Jackson, a teenager with autism, clearly explained the public school problem. “I don’t think anyone would expect someone with one leg to be able to do everything that two legged people do; yet people with autism are expected to keep up with everything at school and very few allowances are made. For example, making autistic people do team sports is not going to make us sociable and coordinated. That’s like saying that if a blind person holds a book in front of their noses for long enough, they are suddenly going to be able to see it.”

Amy Lowe was determined to provide something better for her son so she started researching in earnest. She soon came to the conclusion that if she were to meet the needs of her son, and others like him, she would have to start her own school right here in the Tri-Cities: thus began the Jeremiah School.

Rooted in faith-based values, Amy sought to build a school that would provide a safe environment dedicated to meeting the very specific individual needs of students on the autism spectrum. “We aim to develop the whole child and prepare them for their future lives,” explains Amy. “So alongside a challenging academic education, the school will work hard to develop the students’ social skills, and meet their individual therapy needs with in house speech and language services, as well as occupational therapy. We’re also going to teach essential life skills such as handling money, cooking, and using public transport.”

Opening a school is a daunting undertaking, requiring faith, bravery, and huge amounts of determination and energy. A pilot year in 2015 provided Amy the opportunity to learn exactly what was involved; and, what worked and what didn’t. Taking a year out to find new premises, new staff, and new sponsors, the school opens for its first official school year this August. “It’s been a steep learning curve,” says Amy, “but we now have in place some excellent staff, a very supportive Board of Directors, and a fabulous location. We have a great group of students ready to start and we are excited to open our doors!”

Amy’s faith in her vision was given a tremendous boost when Johnson City’s Coalition4Kids agreed to let Jeremiah School use their premises during the day. The buildings, which used to house Tri-Cities Christian School, comprise of several classrooms, a computer lab, a gymnasium, and a full size industrial kitchen, as well as plentiful space outside. “It is the perfect location for us,” says Amy, “it is fully up to code and is empty all day until the Coalition students come in after 3:00pm. We are so grateful to Coalition for sharing their premises and enabling our school to have a home where we can grow.” The Board’s long term vision will see the school in its own permanent premises, but for now the Coalition building is the answer to a prayer.

“We have big plans for this school,” explains board member, Jo Cullen. “We are building partnerships with Milligan College, ETSU, and local therapy groups. We hope to link with local high schools and North East State Community College. We look forward to eventually extending our age range out to 18 and then down to elementary age students. It is a very exciting prospect.”

Part of the Board’s vision for the school is to put it at the center of the community and to encourage as much participation both in the community and by the community as possible. As Amy Lowe puts it, “These students grow in to adult members of society. It is in everyone’s best interest to ensure they are can function as part of their community, lead independent lives, and make choices about their future.”

As a private non-profit school, Jeremiah School receives no state or federal funding. Students are required to pay a tuition fee to attend. However, the Board of Directors is determined to help parents meet this fee and is working hard to find donors to sponsor scholarships for eligible students. For more information about the school, as well as sponsorship opportunities, visit the school website at www.jeremiahschool.com, or call Amy Lowe on 423-915-9257.

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