After only a few weeks in their new classrooms, children are already at home at Sherwood Center, a school for children with autism and other disabilities.
Sherwood Center, a nonprofit school and adult day program, purchased the former Calvary Lutheran Church school at 8030 Ward Parkway Plaza last year and moved its special education program to the facility in mid-March.
The new school offers teachers more space, additional rooms and the possibility of future expansion. Already the students, many with autism ages 6 through 21, are showing marked improvements, teachers said.
One student in Emily Hayde’s classroom barely spoke before. Hayde wasn’t even sure the student had verbal skills. But in the larger classroom with fewer classmates, he’s been able to relax and open up.
“He’s talking up a storm now,” she said. “He can finally tell me why he’s upset.”
The building sat vacant for over a year, so neighbors are glad the school is being brought back to life.
Janice McMahon lives just north of the school and said she was concerned the vacant building would be a fire hazard or attract people wanting to break in and steal things.
“I enjoy seeing the kids at school,” she said. “I volunteered at the old school, so I may volunteer again.”
Previously Sherwood Center’s special education program, which serves about 50 students, was in the same facility as the adult day program at 7938 Chestnut Ave.
The combined facility meant that classes were often crowded and students had little space. For instance music, art and other activities were held in the classroom instead of in a separate room, forcing students and teachers to reorganize the rooms daily.
Now the school operates in seven classrooms, a music room and gym for physical education.
“It’s amazing how the open space has made them open up,” said Judy Campbell, a teacher who’s been associated with Sherwood Center since 1977.
The program has room to grow. The main wing has one spare classroom. After renovations to the second wing, said community relations manager Rachael Gordon, the school could add four more classrooms.
For Campbell, it’s not just the additional space that helps. Little things like central air, restrooms in each class and windows on doors have made life a lot easier.
At the old school, heating and air conditioning would vary from room to room and the hallway was often hot during the summer. Temperature shifts can create mood and health difficulties for the students, a problem which should be alleviated now by the central air.
More important, each classroom has two restrooms. Teachers often have to train students on how to use the restroom. At the old school, that meant taking the student to a public restroom.
“That privacy is very important,” Campbell said.
Children with autism often have a hard time adjusting to change, so teachers began bringing their classes to the new building weeks before the move. On the move date, they allowed students to carry and load boxes. Campbell said this helped students get acquainted with their classrooms.
“It was probably harder for us (the teachers) to move than it was for them,” she said.
Beyond classroom activities the school has larger plans. The building has a fully functioning kitchen and cafeteria which means Sherwood could offer hot meals to students — a first for the program.
Gordon is working on raising the $75,000 needed to provide those meals. The program is private so it receives no government aid.
Along with the school building, the property also has a small house which a tenant currently rents. In the future, teachers would like to use the home to teach students household skills like cooking, cleaning and laundry.
“We have lots of dreams for our school,” Gordon said.