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Destroyed Santa Rosa school for autistic children plans to reopen at a new site

Anova Center for Education founder and CEO Andrew Bailey stands beside the northeast wing of the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts that was home to Anova's ACE Sonoma Campus, which was destroyed by the Tubbs fire, in Santa Rosa, California on Wednesday, October 18, 2017. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

ELOÍSA RUANO GONZÁLEZ,

At least a couple times a month, Jenny Whalen would get calls from teachers after her son threw a tantrum and trashed a classroom. He bounced around from daycares and preschools that were ill-equipped to deal with his autism, before landing two years ago at Anova, a Santa Rosa school for children and young adults with high-functioning autism, social and emotional challenges.

“This place was like a godsend,” Whalen said of the nonprofit school, which was destroyed by the Tubbs fire last week.

A teacher broke the news to Whalen, 37, of Windsor just hours after the fire on Monday ripped through the school, located at Luther Burbank Center for the Arts. While the fire spared the facility’s main building that includes the Ruth Finley Person Theatre, it gutted the school on the east end.

The fire destroyed everything except three hanging planters still dangling from what was left of the stairwell. The blaze reduced books to powdery ash, while it bent and twisted metal shelves as if they were made out of Play-Doh. It engulfed a storage shed containing a new playground that was delivered days earlier after the school spent two years raising money for it.

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“It was devastating,” Whalen said Wednesday about the fire. “I wish it would have been my house. I would trade places in a second.”

Elise Krawchuk and her friend, Hadeel Eid, cried when they confirmed the fire destroyed their children’s school. Like Whalen, they didn’t know how to tell the kids, who struggle with change of any kind.

Krawchuk said her 11-year-old son loved decorating his new locker on the second floor, where the classrooms for the children were.

“The kids were real excited to decorate the lockers. They’re all gone. Everything is gone,” said Krawchuk, a 37-year-old Bennett Valley resident who fled to Eid’s Rohnert Park house after the fires broke out.

Andrew Bailey, Anova founder and CEO, promised to move forward with the school, even if it means temporarily dividing the children among different campuses. Several school districts reached out and offered space, including Bennett Valley.

“We are a strong community,” said Bailey, who hopes to resume classes sometime next week. “We’re going to rebuild.”

Anova runs another school in Concord, but Bailey said Santa Rosa is the largest. It serves 125 students from throughout San Francisco and Sonoma, Mendocino and Napa counties with 15 teachers and about the same number of therapists. It’s the only program in the county for students with high-functioning autism who are college bound, he said.

“Many kids with Asperger’s (syndrome) can function in high school, but those who can’t don’t have any other option,” said Bailey, a Healdsburg resident who first launched the school in 2003.

Eid, 35, was relieved to hear school officials plan to continue at another site. She fought for two years to get her son, now 11, transferred from the local public school to Anova. She said the school district insisted her son would be taken care of in their special education classrooms, but teachers called her every few days about behavioral issues.

“He used to bolt to the streets. I found him on the sidewalk many times,” she said. “He got to be really violent because his sensory needs were not being met.”

He’s since learned to avoid meltdowns, staying calm and expressing his feelings.

“He’s talking a lot more now and expressing himself. He actually can’t stop talking,” Eid said. More importantly, she added, he made friends.

Krawchuk said the school is a safe place for students dealing with sensory and social challenges. Her son can be himself there “without a fear of judgment.”

Like Krawchuk, Whalen didn’t know how to tell her second-grader the school burned down. He loved the school as much as she did.

“It’s hard for people with typical functioning kids to understand what the school means,” Whalen said. Her son learned to control his frustration.

“His self-esteem is better,” she said. “Before he was (at Anova), there were times when he was so upset with himself because he couldn’t control himself. He’d say he wanted to die and that nobody liked him because he was a bad kid.”

The school launched a fundraising campaign to assist nine of its families impacted by the fire, as well as replace the books, equipment and furniture destroyed in the fire, Bailey said. It can be found at gofundme.com/anova.

Unable to rebuild, he said, “some of the families may have to leave. That’s what we’re trying to avoid.”

The school also is collecting donations through its site, anovaeducation.org. Checks can be mailed to the Anova administrative office at 220 Concourse Blvd., Santa Rosa, CA 95403.

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 707-521-5458.