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Rohnert Park elementary school launches program for students with autism

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Madison Galvez can recite word for word lines from a TV program after only watching the show once, and she can strike up a conversation with anyone anywhere. But the 9-year-old girl, who has high-functioning autism, also can get overstimulated in social situations, leading at times to emotional meltdowns.

“You have moments of great joy, and you have moments of acting out,” said Duaine Labno, her stepfather and a Rohnert Park police detective who has cared for her since she was 2.

Galvez is enrolled in one of two new special education classes at John Reed Elementary School in Rohnert Park, developed for students with mild to moderate autism.

Diagnosed just a couple of years ago, Galvez used to struggle in school, despite having aides to assist her and an Individualized Education Plan, her parents said. But the new program with a 2-1 student-to-staff ratio, individualized curriculum and assessments, and structured but flexible class schedules have helped her progress in school.

“Instead of fitting students into our curriculum, we fit our curriculum to students,” said her teacher, Travis Curtis, an education specialist.

The school has two classes geared toward students with autism, with a total of 18 students enrolled, Principal Monica Fong said.

“Some kids struggle for years. To see them be happy that they can be themselves is a joy in my mind,” Fong said.

Galvez attended Monte Vista Elementary at the beginning of the school year. Her parents considered sending her to Anova, a Santa Rosa-area school for students with autism. But when they heard about the new program at John Reed, which is closer to home, they consulted with Carlo Rossi, an independent child advocate for Social Advocates for Youth and the Sonoma County Special Education Local Plan Area.

“From my perspective (John Reed is) doing a marvelous job,” Rossi said. “Kids are making great strides and they are able to stay in their local school districts.”

On Thursday, Galvez, who loves cartoons and drawing with markers, joyfully hopped around in class, where she is learning about the solar system.

“Mars is the second smallest planet,” the fourth-grader said proudly.

She accepted a high-five from her teacher, who praised her knowledge.

“She’s on an equal playing field for her education,” said Labno, who is pleased with his stepdaughter’s academic progress and improved moods.

He plans to speak about the program and raise money for it during a Park Rotary Club luncheon Thursday. He also will discuss how having a child with autism informs his role as a law enforcement officer. He at times interacts with individuals with autism on the job.

“It allows me to take a step back,” Labno said. “This isn’t the person, it’s the effects of having autism.”

Donations for the program will be collected at the luncheon, and Labno then will deliver them to the school. He also plans to encourage people to drop off donations at the school.

“I couldn’t think of a better cause than to donate this money locally,” Labno said.

Before Galvez transferred to John Reed, Curtis visited her at her previous school. He noticed she struggled with paying attention, and as her teacher now, he keeps her engaged with positive reinforcement and extra attention.

“It sounds simple, but it makes a big difference,” Curtis said.

“Above all else, I want her to leave happy. If learning is fun, she’s learning better,” he said.

Asked how she explains her diagnosis to others, Galvez was straightforward.

“I just tell them I’m autistic, and I don’t know why,” she said as she bounced around in class. “Everybody’s happy in their own way.”

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or susan.minichiello@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @susanmini.

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