New Columbia school will help mid-Missourians with special needs

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COLUMBIA - Starting in the fall, students with emotional disturbances or learning disabilities in mid-Missouri will be able to attend a school that meets their needs. 

The private school will open as a partnership between Specialized Education Services, Inc (SESI) and the Columbia Public School District. It will offer an alternative education for the 2,160 to 3,600 district students who have mental heath needs hindering their academic achievement. It will also cater to students in neighboring districts who live 45 minutes to an hour away from the school. 

"This new school provides additional educational opportunities for students with behaviour concerns and autism who have behaviors that are challenging in terms of their learning and this [school] will provide a different option, a different approach for educating the student," Lou Ann Tanner-Jones, director of Special Services, said. "Something other than what we have in Columbia at this present time."

Funding for the school will come from a quarter-cent sales tax that was passed in December 2012. It will provide $5.4 million annually for children's mental health services in Columbia.

In February, the school district contracted SESI, a company based in Yardley, Pennsylvania, to offer customized classes for K-12 students, including those on the autism spectrum. 

Initially, the site for the school was to be near MU Women's and Children's Hospital, but the school district is no longer certain of that location. 

The school will be Missouri's first Specialized Education Services school. Students who attend the specialized school are federally classified as special needs children. 

According to a report from a 2012 school board meeting, 44 percent of students with mental health problems drop out of school. The new school is designed to lower that statistic. 

Tanner-Jones said the school is just the beginning of a long-term plan to help students with mental health needs across the state.

"The next step would be to work with the school as it opens and referring students and taking advantage of the resources that SESI will provide. We need to make sure the students have the education that we desire for them and also be able to help them transition back to their school districts when their behavior is improved."

Specific requirements for students to enroll have not yet been determined.