When Jillian Johnson and her husband were thinking about accepting jobs in Calhoun County in 2014, there was one item on their make-or-break list.
There had to be a school for their son, Nate, with teachers trained in applied behavioral analysis, or ABA, a therapy for kids with autism.
“Finally we found the Little Tree, and I said ‘OK, we really can move to Alabama,’” said Johnson, who came to the area from Murfreesboro, Tenn.
Johnson’s children are among the first students at the new McClellan campus of the Learning Tree, a Mobile-based chain of schools and clinics for kids with developmental disabilities. The organization has operated in Calhoun County for years, with a Learning Tree center in Jacksonville and a preschool, the Little Tree, in Anniston.
Now the group has a new facility on the former Army base. From a building on Powers Avenue near Buckner Circle, the group now runs both its preschool and a clinic for school-age kids, which opened in the last few weeks. The group held a grand opening for the new building this week.
“It’s centrally located with Oxford and Jacksonville, so it seemed like a convenient location,” said Erica Brown, resource development coordinator for the Learning Tree.
The preschool can serve up to 25 kids, both those with learning disabilities and those without. Preschool director Aimee Spruill said the typically developing kids in the mix serve as “peer mentors” for students with disabilities. Spruill said the level of preschool preparation at the preschool — all the teachers have bachelors’ or masters’ degrees — makes it attractive to peer mentors’ parents.
“It’s a good start for them to get a jump on kindergarten,” she said.
The truly new element of the school is its clinic, where students with autism can do one-on-one work with teachers. That includes ABA, a therapy that many parents say is a breakthrough in the treatment of autism. Until recently, insurers in Alabama often didn’t cover ABA, though the Alabama Legislature last yearpassed a long-debated law to require insurers to cover it and other therapies.
“It’s opened up a lot of opportunities,” said Pruitt. Insurance still doesn’t cover the preschool, but Pruitt said the new law could help the school attract families who wouldn’t otherwise be able to bring their students to the clinic.
Johnson sends both of her kids to the school. Nate, now 10, is on the clinic side. Daughter Nora, 5, is a peer mentor at the preschool. The Johnsons live in Jacksonville, and Jillian said the move to Powers Avenue doesn’t save them much commuting time — but is still more convenient than the space the preschool once shared with United Cerebral Palsy in Anniston.
“Parking is much better,” she said. “It’s a lot less crowded.”
It’s unclear how much more crowded that lot will get. Spruill said the school doesn’t yet have a projection of how much demand for the clinic and preschool will grow in the future.
“We’ll take it as it comes,” she said.