Carolyn Abbitt is proud to show off the Peninsula School at the Faison Center in Oyster Point. She knows first-hand the huge impact that it makes in children’s lives, as her grandson went to school here and thrived.
“There is such a need,” she says. “And this is the gold standard.”
The Peninsula School is like every other school in that it has students and is a place of learning. Its walls are colorful and the students are smiling and happy. But look deeper, and it’s a little different. All of the students at the school have been diagnosed with autism and have special learning and behavioral needs. The Peninsula School fills a void, a place where autistic students can get the education they were unable to get in public schools due to many factors.
Most students at the Peninsula School have severe or moderate aggression or self-injury tendencies, says Brian McCann, president and CEO of the Faison Center, which also has a school for autistic students in Richmond.
“For whatever reason, these students were unable to receive an education in a public setting,” says McCann, an attorney before taking the helm at Faison. The average length of time at the Peninsula School is six years, he says.
“Some transfer back, some don’t,” McCann adds. “We encourage localities to place students here at a young age. The sooner they are here, the sooner they can get back into public school.”
By federal law, all students are entitled to a free and appropriate education. Therefore, families do not need to pay tuition for the school, as it is covered by the school system and the Commonwealth of Virginia.
The Peninsula School opened several years ago in a building shared with the Peninsula Boys and Girls Club of the Virginia Peninsula on Nettles Drive in Newport News. It quickly became apparent that the school needed more space. The school, founded in part by Abbitt’s daughter, Laura, approached Faison about a partnership.
“Faison knew what to do and how to do it,” Carolyn Abbitt says.
In 2019, the acquisition happened and in 2020, the Peninsula School moved into a 10,000-square-foot space in a building on Diligence Drive. The school has five classrooms and a capacity to handle 40 students. It currently has 20 students enrolled and a teacher-student ratio of 1:1.
All the students have IEPs, or individual education plans, in place. The school receives students from eight different localities, including Currituck County, North Carolina. The not-for-profit school uses a system of applied behavior analysis (ABA) to help students progress, says Sydney Mrowiec, the school’s director of administration who moved to Newport News from Richmond to take the position. The ABA is evidence based and uses a clinical approach to assist students in moving forward. Everything is documented and then used to further a student’s educational plan. The school has a staff of 28.
“We want to help students be successful,” Mrowiec says. “If they are not making progress, the data helps us with decisions. On a day-to-day basis, the data collected helps teachers and staff tailor the program to each student.”
Every decision is driven by data,” McCann says. “Every child is unique.”
The Faison Center has research partnerships with University of Virginia, Johns Hopkins University and Columbia University, McCann says. The number of children diagnosed with autism 20 years ago was one in 150. Today, it is 1 in 54.
Carolyn Abbitt could not be happier with the impact Faison has had on the Peninsula School. “It just shows what a good job Faison does, and it shows the need. Students are in good hands here,” she says.
McCann is proud of what the Faison Center has brought to students and families in Newport News and Richmond. “I love it,” he says. “I look forward to watching it continue to grow.”