A peek inside the classroom for students with autism spectrum disorder reveals nearly as many adults as youngsters.
Most of these children have aides who work with them throughout the school day. Occupational and speech therapists also work side-by-side with some of the students as they forge ahead, despite their disabilities.
In the upper levels at Bay Life Academy in Seffner, a fifth-grader may break away and attend a math course set up for third-graders, so she can work her way up to grade level. A fourth-grader at Livingstone Academy in Riverview may attend a reading class for second-graders, even though he is on-level in other areas.
Both schools are growing as demand for their specialized services grows.
"We re-invent the wheel with every kid, every day," said Chris Pello, who runs Bay Life Academy, while his wife, Bernadette Pello, heads up the Livingstone Academy for special-needs students.
"We have students with skills on many levels, both socially and academically," Chris Pello said.
When he worked as an administrator for a local Christian school, Pello said he was constantly having to turn away parents seeking suitable classroom settings for their special-needs children, due to lack of space. That led the Pellos to start their schools, focusing on those students.
Autism spectrum disorder affects a large number of children and appears to be on the upswing, Pello said. Some youngsters suffer from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, have language impairment or are dyslexic — all challenges in a school setting.
Many of the parents show up at Bay Life Academy frazzled and at their wit's end. But if a child has an independent education plan, or IEP, he is eligible for the McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities that will cover tuition. The McKay scholarship is offered to Florida students with special needs to help them find the best environment for learning.
"Some just need a smaller environment with a better student/teacher ratio," Chris Pello said. "Most have learning challenges."
Here, there are typically 20 students in a class with two teachers. In public school, it's closer to 25 students with one teacher.
"Some parents are just fed up with the way their children's issues are handled at public schools," said Kristin Seltzer, executive director of education for both schools.
Families whose students attend the schools have been pushing the Pellos to offer even more space and grade levels.
This year, Bay Life Academy has broken ground for a middle school, and Livingstone Academy is adding modular classrooms to its space at South Bay Church. A high school is in the plan for Baylife Academy in 2013.
Bay Life Academy expects to add 150 new students next year, and Livingstone will have space for 80 more students.
"When parents find out about the schools, word spreads," Seltzer said. "We do have kids that go on to mainstream schools, as well."
But many parents have said they would like their children to finish high school with Bay Life and Livingstone, Seltzer said.
"The pressure has been on us for a couple of years to expand," Chris Pello said. "So we'll add ninth and tenth grades next year" and go on from there.
"I think the biggest thing from parents is that the kids have a place where they are accepted," Bernadette Pello said.
"Just having a place where they can be accepted and nobody looks down on them for their challenges is big. The kids all know they are here for a reason and are just accepting of each other."
Unlike public schools, the academies allow private therapists to work with students in the classrooms, Bernadette Pello said. If they need private speech or occupational therapy, the therapists can work directly with the students during the regular school day.
For 7-year-old Tyler Clark, who has Asperger's syndrome – a developmental disorder that affects a person's ability to socialize and communicate effectively – Bay Life Academy proved a winner, said his dad, Chip Clark. Elsewhere, his son's disability might have been written off as bad behavior, he said.
"We knew he had some behavioral and social issues, and it was affecting his learning ability," Clark said.
The school offers "a more defined approach and maintains a Christian environment," both of which Clark wanted for his son, he said. "At this point, I am extremely happy. Tyler has progressed quite a bit. He still has a long way to go, but they have dealt with it in a productive manner. Educationally, he's doing fantastic."
While the school does not teach any religious doctrine, it does emphasize what Chris Pello calls Christian character traits such as integrity, honesty and compassion.
"And we have an assembly once a week where we do use Biblical stories to reinforce those character traits."
Dawn Moursi's son, Jacob, 11, attends Bay Life, as well. He is also autistic and attends classes with his own therapist.
His family home-schooled him and then enrolled him in a Sarasota school for special needs students.
"He hated it," his mom said. "Since moving him to Bay Life five years ago, he has blossomed. His math skills have picked up, he can read now and he's just doing much better."
The specialized attention Jacob gets at Bay Life will give him a better chance of succeeding in life, Moursi said.
Seltzer said the curriculum used at Bay Life and Livingstone has built-in methods of dealing with the special needs of each student, which makes it that much more effective in teaching them.
Looking at the big picture, the schools give these students opportunities they might not otherwise have, Chris Pello said.
"It becomes possible for many of them to get diplomas where otherwise it would not have been possible."