The Lee University Developmental Inclusion Classroom, or LUDIC, a local school for students with autism spectrum disorder, is expected to close its doors for good this summer. The …
The Lee University Developmental Inclusion Classroom, or LUDIC, a local school for students with autism spectrum disorder, is expected to close its doors for good this summer.
The state-approved private school, which opened 20 years ago on the campus of Lee University, is currently housed at the First Baptist Church Family Life Center on Stephens Road.
“We have had a really good 20-year run,” said Dr. Bill Estes, dean of the Helen DeVos College of Education at Lee, which oversees LUDIC. “It has done amazing work over the years, but we saw it was time to re-evaluate the future of LUDIC.”
Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disorder which affects a person’s communication and behavior. Those on the autism spectrum struggle with social, emotional and communication skills to varying degrees.
LUDIC, which had 18 students during the 2018-19 school year, started in 1999 with seven students — five of whom had autism spectrum disorder. In 2004, it began enrolling only autistic students. Over the years, the school became known for its individualized education offered in a small setting.
“It started as a service to the Lee community. When you look at schools 20 to 30 years ago, there were fewer resources to help with autism,” Estes said. “School districts are now getting better and better, and we are seeing declining enrollment.”
Estes said reasons for the school closure also include the fact the school’s lease with First Baptist Church is ending this summer.
Dr. Tammy Johnson, director of LUDIC, said she has been “amazed” by the support Lee University has given LUDIC over the past 20 years.
“In addition to the physical space, utilities, phones, computers and access to copiers, they have provided student workers and the finances to meet budget on years when we fell short,” Johnson said. “I have always been and forever will be grateful for the role Lee University has played in developing, supporting and sustaining the program.”
Given the years of support, some families of students at LUDIC said they were shocked by the news of the school’s closure. Because of the positive progress their students had made at the school, they are sad to see it go.
Samantha McDermott is the mother of 13-year-old twin sons who are both on the autism spectrum. One son, Noah, is “high-functioning” and attends Cleveland Middle School. However, her other son, Jonas, was enrolled at LUDIC because his form of autism is “more severe.”
“As a parent, I can’t help but feel aggravated, disappointed and sad,” McDermott said. “We actually moved to Cleveland from Florida so Jonas could attend LUDIC. It has been such a good thing for him.”
The boys were 9 when their parents, who are originally from Tennessee, decided to return. McDermott said from the time Jonas began working with teachers at LUDIC, he was able to make major progress. She attributes this to him receiving more individual attention than he did at his previous school.
When he first walked through the doors of LUDIC, Jonas struggled with personal care tasks, hardly spoke and “stimmed” a lot more often.
Because of the way outside stimulation like lights and sounds can overwhelm people with autism, some self-stimulate, or “stim,” by repeatedly making sounds or physical movements to comfort themselves.
“It took a few days, but he became so much more content and calm,” McDermott said. “He is saying more words now and can count and things using flash cards. He also stims less than he used to. They really worked with him.”
Eula Cannon, whose 15-year-old grandson has attended LUDIC since age 5, also said she was saddened by the school’s closure and fears what it could mean for him and his peers.
“I know people may not know much about autism, but that kind of change will be absolutely major for him and the other students,” Cannon said. “There’s no way a public school can offer the same kind of atmosphere for students with autism, and any kind of change affects them more than anyone else.”
LUDIC is designated by the Tennessee Department of Education as a “special purpose” private school. LUDIC’s “major” funding source has been Lee University, Estes said.
The school has also received funding from public school districts which have paid to enroll students at LUDIC. Parents enrolling their students in the private school themselves pay tuition. LUDIC has also received grant funding and funding from the United Way of the Ocoee Region.
Estes said he contacted area public school leaders to let them know LUDIC was closing, so they could prepare to help any LUDIC students enrolling in public schools.
He also said Lee will be looking at “serving school districts in other ways.”
“I know it’s hard for the parents, but it’s hard for us as well,” Estes said. “This is not something we did without a lot of thought. … We see the seriousness, but know school districts can serve these students; it is also their federal responsibility.”
Representatives of two local school districts, Bradley County Schools and Cleveland City Schools, said they are able to help students with autism spectrum disorders.
“Bradley County Schools’ Special Education department has had a longtime relationship with the LUDIC program in Cleveland,” said Ruth Ann White, special education supervisor for Bradley County Schools. “We appreciate the service this program has provided for some specific students with special needs within our school district.”
White added the district provides a variety of services for students with special needs, including those with autism.
She said students transferring from LUDIC “will continue to receive appropriate programming within the Bradley County school system.”
David Stone, supervisor of special populations for Cleveland City Schools, said the district has made “significant strides in the identification and service of individuals with autism” over the years.
“These students are served in a wide range of settings alongside their peers and participate in a wide variety of extracurricular activities,” Stone said. “We believe all students possess unique talents and should have the opportunity to explore and learn while developing strategies necessary to navigate our modern world.”
McDermott said her son Noah “seems to be doing well” in public school. However, she worries how a change in routine will affect Jonas, given his special needs. She said it is not uncommon for students with autism to “regress” after a major change in routine.
Cannon said she has similar concerns about her grandson going from a small private school to a large high school brimming with students. Even if he is able to be in a small classroom environment, having to navigate his way through school could be “really overwhelming.”
LUDIC will be closing this month following the end of a summer school program, which is happening now.
Cannon and McDermott said some parents are still figuring out where their students will attend school this fall.
Still, because of the need for a school like LUDIC, Johnson indicated there is a possibility it could be saved from permanent closure with the help of non-university funding sources.
“The LUDIC families and I believe this is not the end for us,” Johnson said. “We have some funding sources outside of what Lee has provided, and we are pursuing additional financial support, as well as a new location, with the hope that we will be ready to begin the 2019-2020 school year without skipping a beat.”
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