The Learning Center was in a tough spot: After eight years of the charter school being at The Els Center of Excellence in Jupiter, it suddenly needed a new home.
The charter school for children with autism in Kindergarten through eighth grade was left in a tight spot: Where would it go?
The answer to that question could be considered a miracle.
“We didn’t have a lot of time,” said Stacie Routt, executive director of The Learning Center. The school received confirmation on June 3 that they had until the end of that month to move, she said.
Enter the School District of Palm Beach County.
Within a week, PJ D’Aoust, the school district’s director of charter schools, found The Learning Center and its 150 students a new home: The former Western Academy Charter School campus in Royal Palm Beach, on the northeast corner of Royal Palm Beach and Southern boulevards.
“When we walked into this building, we knew we had a school,” Routt said.
Aside from some cosmetic renovations — including new signs, paint and furniture — there were the usual hurdles associated with opening any new business: Permits, inspections and, from the village, approval of a special exception use to allow for an academic institution at the location, which is in Royal Palm Beach’s general commercial zoning district.
Everything came together with remarkable speed, Routt said. From the county to the village, everyone collaborated to help the school open as quickly as possible, with inspectors coming in on Saturdays and the village moving the special exception through its process so it went to the Village Council at the Aug. 17 — where the council members voted unanimously to approve it.
“I would just say that we’re very fortunate that we have a facility that was occupied by a similar charter school, and consequently that we were able to provide you with that kind of home,” Councilman Jeff Hmara said at the meeting.
Thanks to those exceptional efforts, The Learning Center opened its doors just a few days into the new school year, on Aug. 21.
“Our open house, it was unbelievable,” Routt said. She was pleased that 90% of the staff moved with the school from Jupiter to Royal Palm Beach.
“The parents were really excited and just really positive,” she said.
Among the benefits of moving to the new campus: It is 30,000 square feet, 3,000 square feet larger than the previous location. That additional space allowed the school to add two new classes that start Sept. 18: One for pre-Kindergarten and another with a combined third and fourth grades.
The school also now has a dedicated cafeteria, an indoor gymnasium and lockers for older students.
The Learning Center is known for its student-to-teacher ratio, which is 1:1, 1:2 or, at its highest, 1:3.
“We try to make every moment meaningful for them,” Routt said of the students.
Children participate in clubs — including a recently started robotics league club — and classes including physical education and music. In a recent music class, students played drums to learn about tempo. Students across the autism spectrum participated, each with a dedicated staff member by their side.
Those are the moments that can create lasting connections for students, Routt said.
“These kids know that they’re safe and they know that they’re loved and that’s what matters,” said Lisa Stella, the school’s development director.
Her 4-year-old granddaughter, Evie, is among the students at the school.
Evie’s first word was spoken during an event last year at The Learning Center: She said, “Bubble,” during a school party where an entertainer dazzled the students with bubbles.
“And she first said ‘Mama’ here when she was 3,” Stella said. “Her teacher was telling me they were all crying with my daughter, because Evie never said mama until last year when she was here.”
The school has also been lucky to have to a very involved parent-teacher organization, Stella said.
“When we have new parents who come in, a lot of them are vulnerable and they feel so isolated and they feel so challenged,” she said. “They feel like they have the world that they have to conquer alone. And the PTO comes in and says, ‘We have your back.'”
That extends to whatever parents might need: Recommendations for dentists or doctors, ideas for activities and more.
“It took a village to get all this to happen,” Routt said.
The Learning Center hopes to expand, with plans to eventually find its own property to build a large, state-of-the-art K-12 charter school for children with autism, providing services through age 22, Routt said.
“There’s not a school out here that provides this to the community,” she said. “We’ve ended up seeing the need that’s here and just the community itself, it makes you feel like a part of something bigger.”
For more information
Interested in enrolling your child at The Learning Center? Want to find out more? Go to www.thelearningcenter.org.
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