If you're looking into preschools for your toddler, the state ratio is one teacher to 8 kids (1:8) for 2-year-olds, and up to 1:20 for 5-year-olds.
But at SARRC community preschool, the teacher-student ratio is always 1:4, with a strong emphasis on language development, social interaction and vocalization.
Danny Openden is the CEO of SARRC, the Southwest Autism Research & Resource center.
"Our teachers are contacting each child approximately once per minute to set up some type of teaching opportunity," Openden said.
You wouldn't exactly know just by observing, but for every kid here, there's at least one buddy who is on the autism spectrum.
"This is an unbelievably high-quality preschool. You have one teacher for every four kids in the room. All of the staff are highly trained. They all have bachelor's degrees, and many are working on their master's," said Openden.
He believes in the program so much, he enrolled his two sons in preschool here, even those his sons don't have autism.
“I think it teaches them, first and foremost, the individual differences in all people,” Openden said.
Three-year-old Roman is one of Liz Lund's three sons.
All of her boys are on the spectrum.
“They were struggling with some of their social skills, and that was where SARRC came in,” Lund said.
Lund was an early childhood specialist, and was teaching kindergarten when her first son was born and started showing symptoms.
“By 14 months we really started seeing him space out, check out. He wasn’t responding to sounds in a normal manner. He might respond to something like Barney, but not to a knock at the door or me calling his name,” Lund said.
“I just knew and said, 'oh my goodness, this is autism.'”
She wound up enrolling all her sons in SARRC’s preschool.
The school opened in 2005, and has now grown to four classes with 50 students, and a wait list that has them expanding for the first time, to open a new campus in Tempe.
The inclusive early education model teachers use at SARRC, focusing on tactile and verbal recognition, not only helps kids on the spectrum thrive, it’s also widely recognized as the best early education approach for any toddler.
"The urgency that autism creates in our preschool, we know we are up against the clock so we want to maximize every single second across the day,” Openden said.
“And our typically developing kids benefit from that exact same urgency of instruction," he said.
Lund said a lot of the parents with typically performing kids enrolled with her son tell her they are proud to see their kids act as role models and be more outgoing and compassionate toward other students.
“There are hours and hours of work going on behind the scenes to make sure everything is tailored to each child,” Lund said.
Non-invasive, but intentional instruction targets each child's individual challenges and abilities.
“They're providing structure in his environment so he can feel confident,” Lund said of teachers working with Roman.
Compassion, she explained, isn’t a structured component of the SARRC curriculum, but it is inherent.
"We've never had to sit them down and say, ‘Some of your peers have autism,”' Openden explained.
"Everybody is taught together at the same time and included in everything we are doing, and it just happens,” he said.
The new SARRC community preschool is open now near Rural and Warner in Tempe and ready for tours.
The school is currently enrolling 2- to 3-year-olds and hopes to expand to offer even more options in the next year.
And here to learn more about the new preschool enrolling typically progressing kids and toddlers on the autism spectrum.
April is Autism Awareness Month. Click here for our story about how SARRC is helping adults with autism live a more independent life.
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