Story by Joshua ManningÂ |Â Photos by Denise Fleischman
The Learning Center, a charter school serving children with autism, moved to the western communities earlier this year, adding to the diversity of educational options available in the community.
In order to open in time for the current school year, this unique school needed support from the Village of Royal Palm Beach after being left without a home on short notice.
â€œThe Palm Beach County School District and the Village of Royal Palm Beach all worked together to make this possible,â€ Executive Director Stacie Routt said. â€œWe feel that we pulled off a small miracle to make this happen, and the children are flourishing.â€
The school, which serves students ages 3 to 14, with plans to add high school grades next year, originated in 1999 and was one of the first charter schools in the State of Florida. Back then, it operated out of a church building in Palm Beach Gardens.
â€œWe started with six students, and now we have 150 students, which is our capacity,â€ Routt said. â€œWe provide services for children with autism.â€
Most recently, the nonprofit, tuition-free charter school operated out of a location in Jupiter. However, a disagreement with their lease renewal over the summer gave the Learning Center less than 30 daysâ€™ notice to move from their previous location and find a new home.
â€œWe found this beautiful facility that was a pre-existing school, and it met the needs of our students,â€ Routt said. â€œWe were able to move in quickly and open for the start of the school year.â€
Luckily, the school only needed to do cosmetic upgrades before opening and didnâ€™t need to move any walls. There was sanding and painting, as well as being sanitized and prepared for fire safety.
Located at the northeast corner of Royal Palm Beach and Southern boulevards in the Royal Plaza, the site had been the longtime home of Western Academy Charter School, until that school moved to a larger campus further west on Southern Blvd. in 2022.
Routt was particularly appreciative of the villageâ€™s support in fast-tracking the necessary approvals.
â€œThey called a special meeting for us to help us get our approvals through with warm and welcome arms,â€ she said. â€œEverything from the fire inspections to the Health Department did a fast timeline to inspect and ensure our school was safe. We had people bring us welcome baskets from the neighborhood, welcoming us here. I could not get over the generosity of everybody.â€
The necessary special exception approval was granted in August, just as the school year was beginning. From the villageâ€™s perspective, having the Learning Center in the community was an easy decision to make, since services for students with autism are underserved in the western communities. Also, the schoolâ€™s capacity of 150 in the 30,000-square-foot location is far less dense than the siteâ€™s previous occupant, which served more than 400 students in the same space.
Routt said that the schoolâ€™s current student count is 137, but a new classroom opening in January will bring it to capacity at 150.
â€œWe have about 27 students in the Royal Palm Beach and Wellington area that have joined us since the move,â€ Routt said. â€œIt is definitely an underserved area, and we are happy to be here providing services for these students.â€
The majority of the students, and nearly all the staff, made the move with the school from its previous Jupiter location.
â€œOur student-teacher ratio is six to 10 students in a classroom with four to five professionals, including speech, that rotate in and out of the classroom,â€ Routt said. â€œOccupational therapy and board-certified behavior analysts also rotate. Those services are provided to students in the classroom.â€
As necessary, pullout sessions can be held in a less-distracting area.
The school offers an extensive fine arts program that includes physical education, art, music and STEAM, as well as an occupational therapy room and a multi-sensory experience room led by the occupational therapist. Students also have access to a state-of-the-art computer lab.
The new location is much larger than the schoolsâ€™ previous home and has several added amenities, including an indoor gymnasium, cafeteria and kitchen.
Staff members, meanwhile, are fully trained in providing services for students on the autism spectrum.
â€œAutism itself is a neurological disorder,â€ Routt said. â€œWe know from experience that providing repetition opportunities for learning, and thinking outside the box for learning opportunities, is life-changing for the students.â€
Through specialized educational methods, many of the students become more social.
â€œThey can do anything they set their minds to with proper instruction and opportunities,â€ Routt said. â€œThey have so much to give to the community.â€
Ideally, Routt hopes to one day have a stand-alone facility in the western communities to further expand the school.
â€œWe are looking for anywhere between five and 15 acres, and then further expanding the services we can provide for children,â€ she said.
But for now, itâ€™s all about the students.
â€œThey are our primary focus,â€ Routt said. â€œWe believe that every moment we have with them makes a difference for their future. We have seen them grow in so many ways. It is such a special thing to witness and an inspiring job to have.â€