YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Next July, Potential Development will graduate a record 15 students from its Youngstown high school.
The record will likely stand only one year because the need for its services increases every year, says Paul Garchar, CEO of the school for students with autism. “Enrollment has probably increased 10% to 15% each of the last three or four years.”
Currently, 98 students attend classes at the high school, up from 86 last year.
The increase means the school has a waiting list of about four students looking to attend classes there. “We try to do everything we can to avoid it,” Garchar says. “This is probably the first year that we’ve really maintained one for any amount of time.”
Garchar attributes the increasing demand to a few factors. The predominence of the elementary and high school buildings on Market Street has increased visibility, while word-of-mouth referrals from parents is also bringing in students. But the main cause is the rising incidence rate of children born on the autism spectrum.
Based on data from the CDC, the incidence rate was 1 in 150 in 2000. Today it’s one in 44.
“It’s crazy how significantly that number has dropped,” Garchar says.
Data show boys are diagnosed with autism four times more often than girls, with an incidence rate of one in 27 births in boys compared to one in 116 births in girls, according to the CDC.
Potential Development serves students mainly from Mahoning County, although more are enrolling from neighboring communities such as Trumbull and Columbiana counties, Garchar says.
Some families have even relocated from out-of-state to enroll a child in the school. “Last couple years we’ve had a family from New York and also a family from right outside New Orleans,” Garchar says. “There were no services where they lived so they moved the whole family here.”
Potential Development serves students on all levels of the autism spectrum.
After starting as a special-needs preschool, Potential Development began school-age programming in 2001 with classes for K-3 students. It expanded classes to students through grade 6, then grade 8, then bought a second building to serve high school students in 2013.
Katie Petridis, program coordinator at the high school, says its staff of 35 tailors the curriculum to the needs of each student. Every classroom has a teacher and an aide, with a limit of eight students per class.
“When we get students from other districts or a typical school – maybe at that school they weren’t doing so well – but coming over here just the class size can help. It’s a lot calmer environment.”
Students at the higher end of the spectrum are enrolled in the Life Skills program, which follows Ohio’s extended learning standards. “Maybe the students aren’t as verbal as other students. They can’t communicate quite as well and they just need to focus on being more independent in daily life,” Petridis says.
Students learn skills such as counting money, reading and social skills. Classes inside the model apartment at Potential Development allow the students to learn independent living skills such as cooking and doing laundry.
The students also have access to the school’s workforce program, which helps them gain employment after they graduate.
Students on the lower end of the spectrum are enrolled in the academic track, which follows Ohio education standards. “So they’re getting the same kind of curriculum a typical school would teach,” Petridis says.
To help students make the transition from high school, Potential Development offers a pre-employment training program in partnership with Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities, a state agency.
Students get a caseworker with OOD and attend classes that teach job exploration and interview skills.
After graduation, the caseworker will help the student find gainful employment.
Also available to students is the workforce program, which takes students out into the community to expose them to job opportunities.
Garchar says one can find Potential Development’s 65 alumni employed throughout the area.
The elementary school is at maximum capacity and the high school has limited space for more classrooms, he says.
“We might get one more year out of these two buildings,” Garchar says. “We’re going to have to start now to seriously look for additional space.”
Pictured at top: Anna Marie Matti gives a lesson to students at Potential Development High School in Youngstown.