New Richmond center to aid families and public schools in educating autistic students

Education

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A new center in Richmond hopes to help families and public schools struggling to educate students with autism. After nearly 10 years of planning and two years of construction, St. Joseph’s Villa unveiled its new Sarah Dooley Center for Autism.

The center can accommodate up to 112 students from Central Virginia.

The accessible center features customized bright colored classrooms. It also includes a sensory library where students can decompress and an indoor movement room.

“Oh, it’s phenomenal. It’s so bright and airy. These spaces just seem so interchangeable and so fluid, just limitless,” said Megan Scoglio. Her 16-year-old daughter, Porter, got a sneak peek at the center before it opens fully for students next week.

Scoglio believes there are limitless possibilities for educational growth and gains for her daughter, who has already made great strides at St. Joseph’s Villa.

She said, “She is set up for success every day. It has been life-changing.”

Porter, who is missing a piece of one of her chromosomes resulting in developmental delays, had attended public school for a while. Scoglio said the public schools really tried hard to help Porter but just didn’t have the resources.  

“She’s 16 but behaviorally more four. She’s a teenage toddler,” Scoglio said.

The unveiling of the autism center is the culmination of a dream for Senior Director Adam Dreyfus. He cheered as students and staff held a ribbon cutting ceremony before touring the building.

He said, “We can teach these kids how to be successful in public schools. They can be full members of society.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 54 children now have autism.

Over the years, 8News has reported on parent complaints and lawsuits alleging area schools are struggling to educate autistic students.

Last year, both a state report and the U.S. Department of Education found serious failures in how Virginia schools respond to special needs.

One thing you won’t find in the new center is the controversial seclusion rooms and restraints. Quadon McCullough, Director of Program Operations said, “We don’t do self-containment.”

Instead there are open, padded safe spaces in the hallway for a student who may be physically aggressive.

Open, padded hallway space at the Sarah Dooley Center for Autism. (Photo by Kerri O’Brien)

McCullough said, “They are able to go to those padded areas just to calm down.”

The facility is designed to offer innovative resources to students and serve as a research and training hub for public school teachers. The doors open to students Sept. 7.

“[Porter] has been counting down the days for sure,” Scoglio said.

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