TEMPLE, Texas (FOX 44) — Jefferson Elementary School in Temple is giving a one of a kind learning experience for students with autism thanks to a grant from the Texas Education Agency.

Jefferson Elementary will have new tools in the motor lab, a simulated home and a multisensory lab that is the first of its kind in the United States.

“Our main thing with them is growth, to learn how to do things on their own, to become a little more independent as they get older,” functional skills teacher,” functional skills teacher Kristi Penny said. “And so they don’t have to rely on someone for everything for the rest of their life.”

Students and staff at Jefferson elementary school are getting an experience that many never get.

The simulated home allows students to learn skills such as cooking, changing sheets or doing dishes.

“How to make a bed and put the sheets on, how to cook something in the microwave, cook something in the oven, where to store your dishes,” autism teacher Jenna Roach said.

The motor lab allows students to work on gross and fine motor issues.

The state of the art sensory lab will help with students’ sensory needs and give them a place to go if they need to spend some time by themselves.

“Our students are so excited, and we’re so excited for them to be able to encourage these new skills, help them with their sensory regulation and just keep moving forward and progressing.”

Students will rotate so each has the opportunity to make the room what they want it to be to meet their sensory needs.

“They can actually go in and set up what color they want the lights to be,” Penny said. “They can set up their own music. When they go in they can hit their button.”

Roach says these kids are just like others, they just do things a little differently.

“You can talk about neurodivergent and neurotypical kids, but our kids are just like every other kid,” Roach said. “They want to be included. They want to play. They want to learn. They thrive on structure just like any other kid.”

Principal Demny says the goal is for these kids to be apart of the community outside of school and this is made possible by the entire staff.

“It’s one big team,” Demny said. “Everybody supports everybody. Many of these students who we’re serving, using these resources, they are pushed out and included in our general classrooms.”

The school is also partnering with Baylor to train staff and parents, ultimately building a community.

“Even our teachers that are not in our special education department will also be able to understand and help with our children with special needs,” Penny said.

Press Release from Temple ISD:

Temple Independent School District’s Jefferson Elementary School will soon be home to a one of a kind learning experience for students with autism thanks to a grant from the Texas Education Agency (TEA). Jefferson Elementary has been awarded an Innovation Services for Students with Autism grant for the 2022-2024 school years.   

The two-year grant, worth just over $422,500, will allow Jefferson to create a state-of-the-art sensory motor lab and redesign a classroom into a simulated home environment to teach daily living skills. The school will also purchase sensory equipment for use outside for large muscle sensory input. According to the grant application, the additions will allow the school to implement an innovative model of autism programming. The multisensory immersive experience (multisensory lab) would be the first of its kind in the United States and would allow students to independently control their sensory experience. Teachers would also be able to include classroom learning in the multisensory room to allow students with autism to use all of their senses while learning educational content. The simulated home environment classroom would include a simulated kitchen, bedroom, laundry room and living area with visual supports to help students complete tasks. The home environment room will also be used to host parent meetings, so parents can use similar visual supports in their own homes to help build a school-to-home connection. The new programming is expected to serve nearly 120 students.

“I am very proud of our administrators and staff for searching out ways to fund innovative programs and learning opportunities for our students,” Dr. Bobby Ott, superintendent of Temple schools said. “TISD works hard to identify ways to educate and serve the students in all of our special programs and receiving this grant is another example of the way our people come together to make those opportunities happen.”

Jefferson Elementary will also partner with Baylor University to host professional development for staff members and parent training for students with disabilities. The school also plans to host monthly sensory nights to help educate parents on techniques to develop each student’s sensory and social interactions.

“We were very excited to find out that we received the grant and it was a big day here,” said Pamela Demny, principal of Jefferson Elementary. “We look at this grant as a way to support the community, as well as our students. The more we can develop our student’s skills, the more likely they are to become a part of the community. As this program grows, we hope the community sees the importance of making sure everyone is included and there is a place for everybody. Schools and parents also need to work closely together, and this will give our parents another way to ask some questions and ask for some support.”

The grant will fund the design, development and equipping of the multisensory room and the simulated home environment classroom. It will also help pay for professional development of staff, paraprofessionals and administrators working with the program. That additional training will allow Jefferson’s program to collaborate with students and programs at the middle schools and high school.