The sponsor of a proposed charter school in Williamson County has officially started the process by filing an application Monday with the Williamson County Board of Education and the Tennessee Department of Education.
Daniel Byrdsong, who represents the organization that seeks to start a charter school for students with autism in 2022, said the time is now and that Williamson County is the place for such a school. He pointed to 2019 data showing that almost 600 children in the county have autism on their IEP (individualized education plan) and that number is expected to nearly double by 2025.
“There is definitely a need and there is going to continue to be a need the way current numbers are going,” Byrdsong said. “So the time is now to go ahead and get that school open so you can get ahead of it instead of playing catchup. There is not really a good solution now to help these children.”
Byrdsong, former CFO for the group Autism in Motion Clinics (AIM), had submitted a letter of intent to Williamson County Schools Superintendent Jason Golden in early December on behalf of Autism Charter Schools of TN. He is working with Sheri Homishak, former CCO for AIM, to open what would be called Foundations Autism Charter School and would be governed by the WCS school board.
If approved by the board and once ready for staff and students, it would be the first charter school to open in Williamson County. A proposal in 2014 for an agriculture-related charter school was unsuccessful.
“We will create successful learning environments in which children with autism can thrive,” Byrdsong explained in the letter of intent. “This will be done by having different programs tailored for children on the various levels of the autism spectrum. Our curriculum and classrooms will be centered around the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis.”
Meanwhile, WCS staff and board members have been going over a new policy that adheres to a change in state law regarding charter schools. Gov. Bill Lee had established the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission that went into effect Jan. 1 this year.
Part of the policy is the creation of a review team that would assess a group’s application and make a recommendation to the board. The current review team — which is chaired by Maria Griego, executive director for WCS Student Support Services, and also includes K.C. Haugh, vice-chair for the school board — would not only study the application, but would also meet in person with the applicants.
The review team will bring its findings to the board at the April meeting, and the board will then vote to approve or deny the applicant’s request. If denied, the applicant can make any necessary adjustments to the application and appeal to the board. If the board denies again, the applicant can ultimately appeal before the state’s Charter School Commission.
If approved, Byrdsong projects initial enrollment to be around 100 students in grades pre-K to second, then growing each year to hold some 280 students through 11th grade. As far as where classes would be held, he said he has had tentative discussions with the Concord Road Church of Christ in Brentwood for possibly sharing space.
Byrdsong said the key to helping students with autism acclimate to a general classroom setting is through ABA Therapy, and ideally that is in a specific environment where the focus is on autism treatment. He said statistics show that children with autism typically need at least 30 hours of ABA care each week, something that’s difficult to achieve in a standard public school.
“We decided that the need is to have a special environment catered to children with autism to meet in a unique setting and have them all day,” Birdsong said, “and just really help get them to the point where we can get them back to the general classroom. Some of these children need more time than just that initial push when they’re really young.
“Our goal is to get them back into the general classroom without any need for additional assistance and get them back to where they can learn in that classroom environment.”
Here are members of the WCS review team, as appointed by Golden:
- Maria Griego, Executive director for Student Support Services
- K.C. Haugh, Vice-chair for the Williamson County School Board
- Mark Samuels, Assistant superintendent for Operations
- Brent Oakley, Executive director for Elementary
- Vickie Robbins, Assistant Finance director
- Chad Walker, Principal
- Bernadette Coates, Autism consultant
- Rachel Hope, BCBA/behavior specialist
- Lydia Smith, Special Education teacher
- Kayla Fraley, Curriculum specialist
- Stacy Parish, Community member
- Jen Vogus, Community member