Autism school closes, public schools blamed

Due to a financial collapse, Coupeville-based Wintros Academy was forced to shut down last Friday, ending its short-lived status as Washington’s first school specifically for children with autism.

Founders of the academy say local school districts are partly to blame after months of failed talks with special education departments. It’s a problem a spokesperson with the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) called “common.”

In order for Wintros to receive state funding, it first needed sponsorship by a school district to be certified as a non-public agency, instead of a private school. But no Whidbey school district would sign on.

“A district would need to extend their liability to the school, which is where problems can start,” Doug Gill of OSPI said.

Special education departments typically contract with non-public agencies when they can’t meet a particular student’s needs, said Gail Cleveland, Special Education director for the Oak Harbor School District. An example would be a deaf child requiring services from a school for the deaf.

The state money given to the district follows the student to the new school.

“We’re saying that we can provide an appropriate education, so we don’t need to pay for anyone to do anything differently,” Cleveland said.

Oak Harbor schools offer autistic and other special needs children individual education plans based on an evaluation by a school psychologist, occupational therapist, educator and parents, Cleveland explained.

Last February, Charity Winkler, founder of Wintros Academy, first voiced concerns to public school staff about her daughter Sierra’s program.

“The only way to overcome autism is to work with a child one-on-one and give them intensive speech and occupational therapy,” Winkler said. “They weren’t willing to do that. If you put Sierra in a room full of children without aid, she won’t do anything unless you nudge her on.”

For an alternative, Winkler and friend Brandi Matros created Wintros Academy to help children on the autism spectrum. They promised one-on-one education and planned to partner with Whidbey General Hospital for therapies.

Children from North and South Whidbey were soon pulled from the school districts and enrolled in the new program. Funding was limited because each new student required the school’s owners to hire another peer educator, so Winkler began talks with local special education departments.

She described the communications as a flurry of excuses, and said the districts “have been fighting us from the start.”

One reason for denial given by Cleveland and Mike Johnson of the South Whidbey School District, was that Wintros was not an approved private school on the OSPI Web site.

A spokesperson from OPSI said Wintros has been certified for almost a year, but it wasn’t listed online yet.

“In any case that shouldn’t matter,” OSPI spokesperson Nathan Olson said. “A school doesn’t need to be certified as private to gain sponsorship.”

Winkler said that she was never given a candid answer as to why Wintros was denied help from the public school districts.

“I’m assuming they don’t want to give up the money,” Winkler said. “If they put us under, then our children would have to return to school and they would get the money.” Public schools receive added state money for each student who attends.

South Whidbey’s Johnson contends that Wintros founders didn’t appear to have a good business plan and gave little evidence that they could provide a stronger program.

“They hadn’t begun running yet, so there was no data for their performance. It was all on paper,” Johnson said.

The OSPI’s Olson said that if a school argues it can provide better resources for students, the buck stops there. Districts are not required to investigate alternative programs.

Parents can individually take legal action in a dispute resolution process if they feel their child isn’t being adequately served, but there is little recourse for the school.

“I don’t want people to go to court over this,” Winkler said. “That seems like a nightmare.”

One option for school founders if they want to reopen Wintros is to “district shop.” Sponsorship can come from any school district in the state, Olson said.

Winkler is talking about finding additional grant money, talking to investors and taking public donations.

In the meantime, many of her students are going back to public schools.

Winkler said she is disappointed with local school staff and the non-public agency process, which allows districts to “hold all the cards.”

“As long as schools meet the bare minimum of what’s required and have a pair of eyes on them, they can deny us. I don’t want my child to just exist, but to excel,” Winkler said.

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