TPGA: Tell us about OASIS. Who are your ideal students?
|[image: the OASIS school sign outside|
an exterior building door.]
But more specifically, we cater to those autistic students who need a lot of activity. Our students crave movement and need variety. They are stifled by being in the same room for extended amounts of time, and this can often lead to real school problems. Our students tend to be hands-on learners who thrive at unraveling challenges, as opposed to taking in knowledge from tutelage.
TPGA: What is the curriculum at OASIS like? How is it different from other autism schools and classrooms you've encountered?
Susan Walton: We’ve designed our curriculum to be highly functional, and we pair most lessons with real-world opportunities to practice. We focus on how traditional subjects like math, science, and language are tied to daily life. And we are passionate that these things must be worked on in the community and in the world, not in fake classroom models.
|[image: Two people walking next to yellow|
train cars, in a forest clearing.]
We also take life skills very seriously. Shopping, doing laundry, riding the bus, using the library, going to the farmer’s market, the pharmacy ... these are not “field trips” or occasional opportunities. These are things that we do every week. These are skills that take practice. Part of the challenge and the pleasure in these are that the places are never the same two days in a row. And we swim every day, which gives us the opportunity to practice all kinds of self-care and independence skills that can be glossed over in traditional school settings.
So our two biggest differences are that we are so active, and that we spend so much time on community skills. Our students get a lot of movement and exercise, rain or shine. We look upon our premises as a place to come and go from, a home base, but we don’t hang around there for hours on end. And we believe there is no reason to wait until a student is 18 to begin thinking about community interaction, vocational tools, and life skills. It is nonsensical to attempt to acquire those things in a phony version of the world. Classrooms are phony. You buy food in a supermarket. You do laundry in a laundromat. So that’s where we work on those things.
TPGA: How did you end up starting your own autism school?
|[image: White and African-American|
OASIS students on a forest trail.]
I eventually had to admit that the very structure of those programs was the reason that they couldn’t provide it. The only way he could spend a large portion of his school day learning in motion was if I stopped trying to convince others to provide it and I got busy arranging it directly. I used support staff to create a program that I believed in for him.
Less than a year in, it was very clear that he was thriving. He was educationally engaged, and taking the initiative in all kinds of new ways. Bouts of aggression and self-injury, which had reached their zenith in what was called an “ABA-based” school, had become very few and far between. His overall anxiety level cooled way down.
I knew we could never go back to the other way. And I knew he was not the only student struggling the way that he had been. So I began the process with the California Department of Education to become certified, so we could add more students. It was important to have that certification before growing.
TPGA: How did you select the school site?
Susan Walton: It was a combination of need, luck, and lightning, I suppose. Our first site was a simple classroom in a local church, and it offered some nice community aspects and shared resources. But we outgrew it.
|[image: Two OASIS students|
in a swimming pool.]
We have downstairs neighbors like a dojo and an exercise studio. But we have no close neighbor on the building’s upper floor, which we also love since we have no intention of shushing our students, or shutting down stims. We have a lovely amount of space with facilities to prepare and eat meals, within easy reach of all the resources we value, from beaches to stores, books to buses. And a meeting room for IEPs.
TPGA: Why do you think there are so few appropriate options for high-support autistic students, given their diverse educational needs?
Susan Walton: Certainly the shortage of Special Education teachers in California (and nationwide) plays a big role. And the rigors of the Department of Education process is probably also a factor. Any school that sets out to do something other than what currently exists has to expend serious effort complying with all of the systemic challenges, even as they preserve what they want to offer. I came to the process with both passion and patience, but there were times I thought we’d never get through it. Certainly I came to understand -- at a whole new level -- why all the special education schools I’d ever seen operated the way that they do.
But I am sure this is the same in many industries. Status quo is always easier than being different. Educators need to bring passion and commitment to new models. It can be done.
TPGA: What are the next steps for the school?
|[image: African-American and white OASIS|
students pushing a Safeway shopping cart.]
TPGA: How many students can your school currently accept, and how do they apply?
Susan Walton: We intend to serve five students this year. Parents can contact us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org