Richmond nonprofit expands its territory

UMFS Charterhouse School plan

United Methodist Family Services will rent a Shenandoah County building. (Images courtesy of UMFS)

A 113-year-old Richmond nonprofit has inked a deal to expand its special education program to northwestern Virginia.

United Methodist Family Services will turn a Shenandoah County building into a private school that caters to students with autism and other special education needs. The organization operates a similar program in Richmond, where it also provides adoption and counseling services.

Charterhouse School, an accredited education agency affiliated with UMFS, will operate the Shenandoah school when it opens in 2013. On the Richmond UMFS campus, Charterhouse oversees a variety of programs for students between the ages of 11 and 22 who have autism or Asperger’s syndrome. The group runs a day school certified by the Virginia Department of Education, along with a summer camp and a college placement program.

UMFS Charterhouse School building

UMFS will rent the building for $300,000 a year.

Charterhouse executive director Erik Laursen said the Shenandoah facility would eventually serve up to 60 students in sixth through twelfth grades. He said the school would start with about 15 licensed teachers and behavioral therapists, but as enrollment increases, the staff size could more than double.

“We’re going to grow incrementally,” Laursen said. “It’s going to take some time to implement a recruitment plan and to build up a strong school culture.”

Laursen said there’s a big need for this kind of specialized school in the Shenandoah Valley region. Within 50 miles of the new Charterhouse building, there are about 120 students with special education needs enrolled in other private schools. They are spread out across the region, and some commute three hours round trip to school every day. The new school will be a centralized hub for students with special needs, Laursen said.

The Charterhouse program is a joint venture among UMFS, the Shenandoah County government, local school districts and advocacy group Commonwealth Autism Services. The country’s board of supervisors approved a $4.5 million bond package to finance the project, which will include renovations and furnishings for the 8,000-square-foot former middle school the organization leased. UMFS will pay an annual rent of $300,000.

UMFS chief executive Greg Peters said this would be the first time the organization has expanded its educational services outside of Richmond.

“We wanted to replicate a program that’s been very successful at our Richmond campus,” Peters said. “Right now, that program is almost operating at maximum capacity.”

There’s room for 105 students Charterhouse’s Richmond program, and about 95 are enrolled.

Overall, UMFS serves about 10,000 people a year. Peters said eventually he would like to bring some of the other services UMFS offers to Shenandoah.

“We want it to be more than a school,” Peters said. “We want it to be a center for the community.”

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