Reno Gazette Journal: School for children with autism gets permanent home

By Siobhan McAndrew, smcandrew@rgj.com

4:10 p.m. PDT November 4, 2016

Gone are the classrooms in a busy strip mall in Sparks.

The students at the Newton Learning Center have moved into a permanent home in an old daycare in Caughlin Ranch.

It has been a longtime dream of Rebecca Larrieu, who helped open the school for students in kindergarten through 12th grade on the autism spectrum in 2008.

The school has worked with more than 200 families who attend school, after-school and evening programs and summer camp.

“Autism numbers are increasing,” said Larrieu who, along with a small staff of six, renovated a West Reno day care on Village Green Parkway.

The new space is 8,000 square feet and includes classrooms, a lunch room and playground areas.

The school is part of Second Start, based in San Jose, Calif. Second Start was started as an after-school program for children with learning disabilities in 1974. Since it has opened a school in San Jose and Reno.

“We might not be the right fit for everyone, but if we aren’t, we will help families,” said Larrieu, who was inspired to help children with disabilities after seeing the struggle her parents had educating her brother.

She said the goal of the Newton Center is to help students who are behind, being bullied or no longer attending public school and are looking for options.

“The goal of our school is to help families transition back,” she said of the trend in special education that supports including students with disabilities in to the same classrooms they would attend without a disability. She said the school is not for students doing well in public school.

“But we hear the stories of so many children not doing well,” she said. “Here, it’s an option.”

She said many of the families that reach out to Newton have left the public school system and are homeschooling, which isolates children and families. She said children that were told they would not graduate have succeeded at Newton and finished high school with a diploma.

She said students at Newton make friends. Parents tell her that many times it is the first time their son or daughter has been invited to a birthday party.

Larrieu said the school helps students transition back to public school, but some stay on to graduate.

Executive Director of Second Start Tara Bevington, which oversees Newton Learning Center, said the parent support in Reno is overwhelming.

She said parents and the school’s small staff donated countless number of hours to transition the day care space into a traditional school building.

The school is holding an open house from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday.

She said unlike the program in San Jose, where school districts often pay for children with autism to attend the program, all of Nevada’s families pay privately.

Bevington and Larrieu hope a school choice program that would allow Nevada families access to $5,100 a year to pay for private schools eventually moves forward.

The Nevada Supreme Court blocked the program in October because the program is funded in an account for public schools. Lawmakers could fix the problem by setting aside money for the program during the next session.