With the school year just around the corner, St. Joseph’s Villa has cut the ribbon on its newly renovated autism center.
The nonprofit, which provides education, mental health and housing services from its 82-acre campus at 8000 Brook Road, spent $9.5 million on its new Sarah Dooley Center for Autism. The project included updating the historic school building into a modern education facility for autistic students and creating a training facility for educators and others who interact with autistic students.
The center’s staff, students and parents gathered Thursday for a ribbon-cutting ceremony, capping off a years-in-the making project to address the challenges associated with an increasing population of autistic students.
“One of the huge challenges facing our state and many other states is that public schools really struggle to educate these kids. The model this school is based on is we can teach these kids to be successful in the public schools,” Adam Dreyfus, the center’s senior director, said during the ceremony. “Seven years ago this seemed like a dream, but now it’s happening,”
St. Joseph’s Villa CEO Kathleen Barrett also shared remarks.
The center features classrooms, a sensory library, living-skills education facilities, a clinic and observation areas. There is also a 250-person center for events, training and conferences.
When the school opens Sept. 7, it will be attended by 96 students and was recently approved to have a cap of 112 students. Students are placed in the program by their public school divisions in 26 localities in central Virginia. The curriculum is geared toward helping students with autism transition to their public schools.
“We have a waitlist, so this will allow us to grow,” St. Joseph’s Villa Chief Advancement Officer Jenny Friar said after the ceremony
The autism center is also a venue for after-school programs, day programming for adults and career services.
The professional training program is still being developed, as that work was disrupted by the pandemic. The plan is to have the program’s curriculum finalized by the end of this year, Friar said.
While the center’s training program will provide in-person instruction aimed at teachers, pediatricians, bus drivers and parents in central Virginia, the experience of the pandemic has led to the creation of a virtual component.
“I do think there was a silver lining with COVID in the sense that it came at the right time for us to realize that we could do a lot with virtual training. So, we updated the plans and inside to have good broadcasting technology,” Friar said. “We realized we wanted to be able to record and access a much wider audience for the teacher training.”
While the nonprofit plans to cover most expenses through donations, and has already lined up some benefactors, it expects to charge a small but still-to-be-determined fee for those who are instructed through the program.
The center’s renovation project was completed in the spring after it kicked off in 2019.
Odell Associates was the project architect. Daniel & Co. was the project contractor.
The project was funded with some of the $30.7 million the nonprofit raised in its five-year RiseUp fundraising campaign. Other funds have gone toward the repair and renovation of other campus buildings, an upgraded HVAC system, a playground and other projects.
St. Joseph’s Villa also operates the Dooley School, which is a different education program for students with behavioral disabilities.
Founded in 1834, St. Joseph’s Villa reported $22 million in total revenue and $19.5 million in total expenses in fiscal year 2020, according to tax filings.