Wiping away tears, Lisa Jenkins found the words to describe what this moment meant to her family.
A decade after suing the Muscogee County School District to get better autism treatment for her son, George, they participated in Thursday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating the $1 million renovation that created a classroom wing dedicated to educating students with autism at Double Churches Middle School.
“We owe a thank-you to the community,” Lisa told the Ledger-Enquirer. “... Nobody else in the state of Georgia has anything like this. We are a model.”
George is one of 34 students in the school’s autism program. When the Jenkins family came to MCSD in 2005, Lisa was told the district had 32 children with autism; now, that number is nearly 700, she said.
After finding George strapped to a chair at school in 2007, Lisa said, she and her husband “went through the legal process (2008-2013) because we didn’t have any services.”
Lisa promised her mother, Elsie Lucas, that she “wouldn’t stop until George was served, until all children were served.”
That’s why she started the Anchors for Autism Parents Coalition in Columbus. And that’s why she campaigned for the 2015 referendum that renewed the 1 percent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax. The SPLOST has funded the autism classroom wings at Double Churches and Jordan Vocational High School and will fund one at a yet-to-be-announced elementary school.
Lisa’s mother died several years ago, so she didn’t see this promise come to fruition, but she certainly was part of it.
“She was my advocate,” Lisa said.
The Jenkins family dropped their lawsuit in 2013, when the Muscogee County School Board hired superintendent David Lewis and Lisa sensed the new administration would work to provide the services she sought.
“I saw in Dr. Lewis somebody who wanted to help the children,” she said. “... No matter what your difference are with the school district, you still have to come to the table with the want-to and do it. You can still have your differences, you can still have your problems, but you should never stop coming to the table.”
During the ceremony, Double Churches principal Craig Fitts said the wing comprises eight classrooms (one for physical therapy), four observation rooms and a living center, including a bed, kitchen and dining areas and a full bathroom, where students learn life skills. Each classroom has one teacher and two paraprofessionals, he said.
“I can’t tell you how much respect I have for those folks” Fitts said, “because they worked tirelessly to look at each one of our kids and determine where they’re at academic-wise, behavior-wise, and put them where they need to be to help them grow.”
The 14,000 square feet of renovation cost $1,001,580, plus approximately $20,000 for furnishing, Lewis said. It has equipped the classrooms with new direct and indirect lighting that can be dimmed to accommodate students who have sensory issues, he said. Sudhir Patel of Columbus designed the project, and River City Contracting of Fortson built it.
Lewis noted the ceremony coincided with Autism Awareness Month. One out of six students is diagnosed with some form of autism on the spectrum, according to a recent study, he said.
Then he thanked the Columbus residents who voted for the 2015 referendum to renew the SPLOST.
“It’s important to recognize the need for us to address the concerns of parents and the needs of children,” he said, “and this is a testament to that commitment.”