ZEPHYRHILLS — A year ago, Chris Dester was just one more parent with a student enrolled in a first-year charter school for autistic children.
A lot changed in the past 12 months; mostly in the past four.
Now Dester is the director of the school, which transformed from a charter into a private school after running into financial problems. The school also changed its name from FACE Pasco to the Monarch School - Zephyrhills and moved from its previous location to space it rents from the First Assembly of God at 36322 State Road 54.
“I certainly wasn’t looking for a new job,” said Dester, whose 11-year-old son Nicholas attends the school, which continues to focus on the needs of autistic students despite all the other changes.
The search for a new director began over the summer when the school ended its charter contract with the Pasco County School Board and threw in its lot with the private Monarch School in Lakeland. Dester looked over the job qualifications, decided he fit the description and put in his application.
Amy Arnold, CEO of the Monarch School in Lakeland, said she hopes to visit the Zephyrhills campus twice a week, but praised Dester as “the glue that has put it together.”
Last week, students arrived for the first day of class.
The school has just 13 students — all boys — with four more awaiting approval of their state-issued McKay Scholarships that go to public school students with disabilities who transfer to a private school. Those four students would join the school in October if that funding comes through.
Although the school planned to start with more students, Dester said he is fine with the numbers and expects to grow from there.
“We’re taking a crawl, walk, run mentality with enrollment,” he said.
The school staff is also small, with three teachers and two support staff members who help with a variety of tasks. That gives Monarch School - Zephyrhills about a 4 to 1 ratio of students to teachers.
Not all autistic children are the same. They have varying degrees of difficulties with social interaction and verbal and nonverbal communication, but Dester said Monarch works with children across the autistic spectrum.
“Some private schools take some autistic students, but not the whole spectrum,” he said. “We don’t want to turn anyone away. If we are going to be a school for autistic students, we are going to be a school for autistic students across the spectrum.”
In one of the classrooms Thursday, teacher Barbara King worked one-on-one with 14-year-old Christian Redmond as they manipulated Kinetic Sand, which is almost fluid-like but can also be sculpted.
“He loves it,” King said as she let the sand drip into Christian’s hand. “I will have to buy some more.”
The school had a few lucky breaks on the way to last week’s opening, after enduring several bad ones and nearly shutting down.
Originally, FACE Pasco opened in August 2013 as a satellite campus of a FACE charter school in Hillsborough. FACE stands for Florida Autism Center of Excellence.
In the spring, parents learned that because of low enrollment the school was struggling financially and the board of directors in Hillsborough might close it. Dester was one of several parents who became involved in a last-ditch effort to save the school, courting potential private schools to take it over.
They eventually settled on the Monarch School, which serves 108 students in Lakeland and also specializes in educating autistic students.
The next step was to find a place to move the school after a deal couldn’t be worked out quickly enough with the previous landlord. In stepped First Assembly of God, which had classroom space and an activity center in the back of the church.
“We were grateful to the church and the pastor, who recognized our deadlines,” Dester said.
One reason the school had to move quickly was so parents could meet the deadline for applying for McKay Scholarships. Charter schools are public schools and don’t charge tuition, but private schools do. The McKay Scholarships help parents with the cost of that tuition.
Despite its small size, Monarch School - Zephyrhills already has an active Parent-Teacher Organization, which launched its own website — www .monarchzephyrhillspto.com — where it lists school news, events and fundraising activities.
The PTO is heavy into raising money in an effort to make sure the financial problems that faced the school in its charter days aren’t repeated.
“This group is not going to let that happen again,” Dester said.