New program helping students on autism spectrum

Posted at 6:51 PM, Feb 18, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-19 08:20:37-05

In a first of its kind program, two Palm Beach County charter schools are teaming up to help students on the autism spectrum become career-ready.

Starting this semester, students from Palm Beach School for Autism are taking courses at South Tech Academy.

"What grade are you in?" Eric Pinales asks.

"Tenth," replies Andree St. Laurent.

It's the beginning of a conversation between students at two different schools which may never have happened without a new partnership.

Andree and other students at Palm Beach School for Autism are now visiting South Tech Academy twice a week.

They take commercial arts or information technology courses. 

"I'm trying my hardest because I'm not really good at art, maybe a little bit," says St Laurent.

He's learning real-world skills in the arts class. He could earn a certification to help him land a job and live independently after he graduates.

But maybe more importantly, St Laurent is paired with a mentor from South Tech: Eric Pinales.

The high school junior has a brother on the autism spectrum. When he heard his school was launching this collaboration, he had to get involved.

"I think it's been a really great experience," he says. "I feel blessed I can be sitting down here mentoring other kids."

Pinales explains he's learned more things about autism spectrum disorder to help him better interact with his brother. 

Across the classroom, Zachary Godbey and Sam Restrepo admit things started slowly.

"It made me a little bit nervous at first; like to talk," says Restrepo, who is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

But today, he cracked a joke. Godbey says the barriers from the beginning of the semester are coming down.

"It's made me a lot more open. I'm not as nervous around people, talking to new people and such," Godbey, a South Tech Academy student, shares.

School leaders say establishing these relationships can teach students more than a book.

"Being with other kids, I think, is one of the most important ways for our students to learn," explains Nick Miles, the principal at Palm Beach School for Autism.

At South Tech, the director of professional services says it's rewarding to see students learn new skills and become friends.

"The one that has the most impact on me is when a student leans over, gives a side hug and says, 'This is my best friend.' And we're talking within less than a few weeks, that kind of relationship is what is starting to be born," explains Jay Boggess.

Boggess hopes this pilot program will grow and set an example for other schools in the state.