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Santa Rosa school for autistic children moving to Wells Fargo Center

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A Santa Rosa school serving autistic children announced an agreement this week to move into a vacant campus at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts, a bigger space that will help it better serve a growing population of students.

The school, run by the nonprofit Anova Center for Education, will move next month into a section of the north Santa Rosa complex formerly occupied by Sonoma Academy and Sonoma Country Day School.

Anova began looking for a new home because the lease at its current location, inside the Redwood Credit Union building on Cleveland Avenue, was scheduled to expire in 2017, said Andrew Bailey, who co-founded Anova 15 years ago and is now its CEO. Its new campus will provide a more school-like setting than the current converted office space, Bailey said. To facilitate the move, Redwood Credit allowed Anova to exit its lease early, he said.

Anova serves hundreds of kids from kindergarten through grade 12 around the Bay Area who have been diagnosed with high-functioning autism or other social, emotional and learning problems and who are struggling in a traditional school setting, Bailey said. First, it tries to help keep kids in public school by providing therapists and behavior analysts there to work with them. Kids who are still struggling can attend one of the three schools Anova operates in Santa Rosa, San Rafael and Concord. But even when a student enrolls at an Anova campus, the goal is for them to return to and thrive at their original school.

“The closer the environment is (to a traditional school setting), the better we are able to accomplish that goal,” Bailey said. That’s why he’s celebrating new school features at the Wells Fargo site, including bigger classrooms, lockers and a play structure.

The space will also be bigger, allowing the roughly 100-student school to eventually accommodate an additional 20 or so students and meet the demands of the county’s growing population of autistic kids.

Right now, demand is so high that kids in kindergarten through eighth grade face a wait anywhere from one to six months before they can enroll in the specialized school.

“That’s important because K-8 is an age when kids need help right away,” he said.

Demand has grown dramatically since the first school opened in Sonoma County in 2003 with just three students, Bailey said. He attributed that to a national rise in autism.

A CDC study released in 2014 found that 1 in 68 children in numerous communities across the country have been diagnosed with a disorder on the autism spectrum, up from 1 in 88 in 2012.

“Society is really struggling to keep up with the increase,” he said.

The school, classified as a non-public institution, operates on primarily public dollars provided by school districts when they authorize a student to transfer there. It is overseen by a state-mandated association that oversees and facilitates educational services for students with disabilities in Sonoma County.

It has signed a 10-year lease at the Wells Fargo Center with the Luther Burbank Memorial Foundation, which is currently updating the campus with new carpeting, paint and some changes to the floor plan. Bailey said the school will begin its move on Aug. 3 and plans to be fully situated by the time classes start Aug. 19.

Anova will celebrate its move with a public event on Aug. 22 at the Wells Fargo Center.

You can reach Staff Writer Jamie Hansen at 521-5205 or jamie. hansen@pressdemocrat.com.

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