For these parents, a smile or a hug or even a complaint like “my tummy hurts” from their child is often cause for celebration. That’s because many have children with special needs that turn routine milestones — like uttering the words “mommy” and “daddy” — into major life moments.
“He was basically locked in his own world,” Martha Bryant said of her grandson, Eli Morrow, before he began attending Little Tree. By the time Eli celebrated his third birthday, a few months after enrolling, the family could already see a major improvement.
“He leaned over and blew out his candles and we started singing ‘Happy Birthday’ for him and he started singing with us and we were all about to cry,” Bryant said.
Bryant, of Pell City, is not alone. Parents and family members of other Little Tree students have reported seeing marked improvements in children enrolled at the preschool, but they fear that the school will soon have to close its doors because of a looming funding shortfall. Now, these families and the school’s founders are fighting to keep it open on a month-to-month basis.
The Little Tree is a preschool program designed to help developmentally delayed children reach their full potential by pairing them with typically developing children. The environment helps young children acclimate to their peers, those with and without disabilities, preparing them for a typical classroom setting.
The center is at risk of losing a $100,000 annual grant from the Alabama Department of Education, which it’s been dependent on since opening its doors five years ago. School administrators said they’ve been told they shouldn’t count on receiving the funding in the future, but did not elaborate on the expected difficulties in securing the grant. Attempts to reach the organization’s state director for further clarification Thursday were not successful.
Even with the grant, which the school has received every year since 2008, Little Tree brings in just enough to get by. In addition to the grant, the school relies on about $60,000 received each year from The Learning Tree, a residential facility for older children with developmental delays that serves as Little Tree’s parent organization, as well as money raised at fundraisers and tuition.
Without the grant, the center will have to raise $160,000 to stay open. Even though it received the grant funding for the current fiscal year, the center was scheduled to shut its doors Jan. 31 because of the expected budget shortfall, said Patricia Murphy, who serves as the center’s director.
Hard work, fundraisers and support from the center’s executive director staved off that closing. Now the center is operating on a day-to-day basis. Employees, students and parents don’t know when the funding will run out and if or when the center will shut down.
‘We dream bigger dreams’
Parents of children with autism who attend Little Tree say that with help from the preschool program, they believe their children may be spared from a future at an institutionalized facility.
Scientific research backs up their opinion. A 1987 study out of UCLA revealed that half the students educated under the methodology applied at Little Tree were successfully able to enter mainstream classrooms.
Not only has Bryant’s grandson Eli made marked improvements since enrolling in the program, so have his classmates. Alex Lombardi, a toddler diagnosed with a high-functioning form of autism, was regressing before he came to the center, but is now making such great gains that it’s hard to distinguish him from his typically developing peers.
“Because of this place, we dream bigger dreams for our child,” said Alex’s mother Alexis Lombardi, who said her son has learned to speak in complete sentences.
Little Tree student Lynn Johnson has also made great strides since coming to the center. Her mom, Tara Johnson, drives from Fort Payne three times a week to be sure Lynn can attend classes at the center.
“I know I have a small amount of time to get Lynn the help that she needs,” Johnson said, adding that she hasn’t found a place closer to home that provides the same quality of services for her daughter.
Little Tree typically serves around two dozen children at a time using a physiological discipline known as applied behavioral analysis. Other area preschools and public schools also serve developmentally delayed children and children with autism, but use a mixed-method approach to reach the children. Little Tree is unique among preschool programs in Calhoun County because it uses this method exclusively.
Applied behavioral analysis is widely accepted as a proven method for treating young children with autism. It has been endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention refers to it as a “notable approach” for treating autism spectrum disorders and the practice has been identified as the “most proven method for treating autism” by the American Surgeon General.
Ashlie Walker, a board certified behavior analyst with Milestones Behavior Counseling out of Birmingham, said the gains documented in a major study at UCLA and “thousands” of scholarly articles are reflective of the changes she’s seen in children while working in the field.
Walker says children with autism don’t respond as well to general special education teaching methods. And methods such as occupational and speech therapy, which are used to address a wide variety of learning disorders and developmental delays, are not best practice either, she adds.
“Kids with autism don’t typically learn in the same way that kids with ADD or ADHD do,” she said.
Using behavioral analysis, the students and teachers analyze individual student behaviors, their likes and their dislikes. They then use that information with other teaching techniques to work to teach young children how to learn and interact with others.
In the hands of a professional teacher using behavioral analysis, simple toys become tools. On a recent Wednesday, a teacher at The Little Tree used maracas to play with and teach a child with autism. The color of the instrument, how it felt and sounded, and how the teacher used it to interact with the child all became teaching elements.
But participation in the program is already down. At the end of March, Little Tree ended its after-school program, which prompted four families to withdraw their children from the school, bringing the current number of students down to 16.
Teachers said that the end of the after-school program might be a precursor to the end of Little Tree in Jacksonville.
Parents who need childcare from 3 p.m. until the end of the regular business day were among the first to leave. Some parents withdrew their children to look for preschool programs with more stability, teachers said.
Little Tree employs five full-time teachers, three of whom have advanced degrees; one is about to complete an advanced degree and the other has a bachelor’s degree.
In addition to paid employees, Little Tree in Jacksonville also enlists support from Jacksonville State University’s applied behavioral analysis program. Behavioral analysis is a division of physiological studies that examines how principles of learning can be used to address behavioral needs.
Three JSU undergraduate students and four JSU graduate students pursuing degrees in behavioral analysis help out at Little Tree. They are able to lend a hand at the center, lowering the school’s student-to-teacher ratio, all while collecting hours required for their courses and certification in their field.
Filling a need
The Little Tree has three locations in Alabama — one in Jacksonville, one in Auburn and one in Mobile. All are at risk of losing funding, but only the Jacksonville and Auburn centers, both of which have strong ties with state universities, are at risk of having to close their doors.
The Mobile center is more stable because it’s connected to a public school system and receives funding for teachers from the state, much in the same way a public school does.
While that model has worked in Mobile it hasn’t been developed locally, although Jacksonville City Schools and Calhoun County Schools have budding preschool programs that are designed to serve special-needs students.
Little Tree administrators approached Jacksonville City Schools about the possibility of joining to sustain the program. Jacksonville schools are in the process of developing a first-year preschool program, which also exists to serve both typically developing children and children with autism. Administrators with the city school system said they are open to the idea, but they are not yet certain they want to take that step.
“The door is open,” Jacksonville City School Superintendent Jon Paul Campbell said.
All three Little Tree centers are associated with The Learning Tree, which, as the parent program, receives the bulk of the funding.
The Learning Tree is funded through the state on a per-person basis because of a federal law that requires the government to offer education to each person. Learning Tree students have developmental delays so severe they can’t be served in a traditional public school setting, so to abide by the federal law, the state pays for their tuition at institutionalized facilities like The Learning Tree.
Making matters worse, organizers said The Learning Tree has lost roughly $2.5 million in funding since 2010. At least $1 million of that came from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, a bill that provided temporary federal funding to entities across the country in the wake of the 2008 recession.
The source of the $1.5 million in remaining cuts was not immediately clear, but organizers said the loss was connected to the economic hardships that the nation has faced since 2008.
While school administrators are looking to state and federal grant funding to keep Little Tree afloat, Walker, the behavior analyst in Birmingham, sees another solution.
She said the key to keeping the program in operation is ensuring that insurance companies cover applied behavioral analysis. Without insurance coverage, many parents can’t afford to pay preschools like Little Tree to provide the intensive attention children with autism need. With that coverage Walker said that these programs would become sustainable and added that insurance coverage would allow such education programs to grow and open new locations.
She said she supports an insurance mandate that would require insurance companies to cover applied behavior analysis. Some states have already passed legislation requiring applied behavior analysis coverage, a move that Walker said is greatly helping the growing number of children with autism.
“We would not only be able to sustain The Little Tree in Jacksonville, we could have clinics like that at every city in the state,” Walker said.
Adults like Bryant, whose grandson Eli has made great strides at Little Tree don’t care where the money comes from. They just hope that enough is available to keep the center open as long as there is a need for it.
Jennifer Wythe, Little Tree’s clinical coordinator, and Amy Spruill, a highly qualified educator, have been working for the center since “it was just an idea.” Standing in a school hallway earlier this month, they each said they have seen the center through from its inception, and like Bryant, they think there is a need for the preschool.
Many family members, including Bryant, aren’t certain where they will send their children if the facility closes. Some have sought information about public school preschool programs, but several are certain that the service provided at Little Tree can’t be replaced.
“I think we are something that the community needs,” Spruill said, tears forming in her eyes. “We’re a service that’s not around in this area. We can be a resource in the community.”
To donate to The Little Tree, visit www.razoo.com and search for “Operation: Save Our Little Tree”
“Across America: 10,000 miles for kids with Autism”
Jerre Brimer, co-founder of The Learning Tree, is on a 10,000-mile bicycle ride to increase autism awareness and raise funds for The Learning Tree programs. Brimer hopes to raise $250,000 through his fundraising effort. For sponsor information or to make a donation in honor of Brimer’s effort, contact Nicky Foster at 251-331-2633 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.