For the past two and a half years, Ouray School has been participating in the Colorado Model Autism and Significant Support Needs Program (CO-MASP) project, a grant-funded five-year initiative that is building model autism programs throughout the state while focusing on improving educational services and outcomes for these populations of students.
The intent is, as the project grows, participating schools will serve as beacons and mentors to other districts struggling to cope with what some experts have described as an "autism epidemic" across the state and country.
CDE autism consultants have visited Ouray School consistently since the project began in 2010, to provide coaching and mentorship to teachers and administrators. The school’s achievement of model status basically means that it has “graduated” from the program, meeting or exceeding quality indicators in an extensive assessment tool, to determine all of the characteristics needed for a model site serving kids with autism.
When Ouray School Superintendent Scott Pankow found out about the designation, the first thing that crossed his mind was: “That’s great, but how can we get better?”
He said the designation is “really a tribute to our teachers and their continuous and tireless efforts.”
Already the Ouray School is becoming a magnet for families with children affected by ASD. “This year we took a student from out-of-district and that student is flourishing in our school,” Pankow said.
So far, the program has been fully implemented at the elementary and middle school levels. Next year, the focus will be on high school and helping older students transition to the world beyond.
“We’re not resting on our laurels,” Pankow said. “The process is never-ending. It’s cool to be recognized as one of the top schools in the state, but now we need to start thinking about how we can do the right thing for next year.”
Five percent of Ouray School’s students have been identified as having high-functioning autism or Aspergers syndrome. They do better during structured classroom time and struggle socially during transitions and unstructured activities like recess or lunch.
Therefore, one of the things that has made the Ouray School’s implementation of CO-MASP criteria so successful is its commitment to train everybody in the building about how to help children with ASD, from teachers to paraprofessionals, to the lunch lady and the recess lady, “so they have resources to help kids during unstructured time,” Pankow explained.
“The key is to always have a backup plan, a contingency plan for when things might occur, putting the right people in place, and building awareness inside of the building,” he said.
Other intervention programs that have set Ouray School apart include a focus on social skills building, not only for kids with ASD but their peers as well.
“Everyone benefits; the kinds of things that are important for kids with ASD are good for all kids,” said Sharon Sirotek, a school psychologist with the Uncompahgre Board of Cooperative Services that serves Ouray School, and the leader of the UnBOCS Autism Team. Additional team members include occupational therapist Annie Clark, speech therapist Sarah Lyons and early childhood specialists Virginia Stephenson and Johanna Wasser.
By collaborating with the CDE autism specialists in the CO-MASP project, Sirotek and her team members will now be able to help the other school districts they serve to tailor their programs even better, in order to meet their ASD students' very individual needs at each level as they progress through school.
“It’s a big deal; I’m just so thrilled,” Sirotek said. “Ouray School has been unbelievably cooperative and proactive through this process. There is no cookie cutter formula. Each child with ASD is unique, and each teacher at Ouray School takes their own teaching style and adapts it for children with ASD. They have real appreciation for these kids on the spectrum, the marvelous unique human beings that they are.”