By Dorothy Puch Lillig for Friends of Down Syndrome
After less than two years at their Northwest Houston location, the Down Syndrome Academy, a post-high school education program for adults with Down Syndrome, is moving to a bigger space.
“We are maxed out,” said Rosa Rocha, president of the Friends of Down Syndrome. The Academy is a program of the Friends of Down Syndrome, a nonprofit organization with a mission to create lifelong learning opportunities for teens and adults with Down Syndrome. In recent months, the Academy has been adding students to a wait list as they make arrangements to move into their new school at 5200 Mitchelldale, Suite D4, Houston, which is just across the street from the current school.
The Academy staff and students are excited to be moving into their new space in October, as October is also National Down Syndrome Awareness Month, a special month for all those involved with Down Syndrome education.
Rocha first opened the school in January 2014 when she saw a need for continued education for her son, David, who is 26 and “aged out” of the public school system. Students with Down Syndrome may attend high school until age 22, Rocha said. After that, there are few educational opportunities for them.
At the Down Syndrome Academy, students spend Monday, Wednesday and Friday taking classes in reading, math, science, Texas history and health/physical education. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the students learn job skills and some even work in the community at a local church. They also continue with their physical education, as well as build birdhouses to sell to the public and dismantle trophies for reuse by a local company. As a community outreach program, they cut coupons for military families, as those living on military bases can use the coupons up to six months past their expiration date.
Once the word spread about the educational and social opportunities at the Down Syndrome Academy, Rocha said, she saw students coming from all over Houston, as well as Katy, Missouri City, Stafford, Bellaire, Tomball and Angleton.
Teachers at the school include retired area special education teachers. Among the teaching staff is Calista Boyd, a long-time teacher in the Houston area and a member of the first class to graduate from Bellaire High School. Mrs. Boyd believes that, “Through determination, you can do anything.” She currently drives from Trinity, Texas, a two-hour trip, to teach at the school.
Directors of the school like to think they are making “W.A.V.E.S.” when it comes to educating and motivating adults with Down Syndrome, Rocha said. Jennifer Friedman, a parent from the school, came up with the acronym as the school focuses on Wellness, Academics, Vocational programs, Education for Caregivers and provides a Social Club.
Recently, the school hired personal trainer Daryl Hughes to teach physical education and nutrition Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Adults with Down Syndrome have very specific health issues and needs, including physical issues such as low metabolism and weaker muscles. By making nutrition and physical education a part of the students’ daily lives, the Academy hopes to address some of these issues.
In addition to vocational work at a local church and skills they learn in the school, Rocha and the teachers at the Academy are hoping to find paid work for the adult students, as many of them really want to be a part of the community and work.
The Academy is also educating the caregivers of their students through a “Building Blocks to Success” Educational Series. Various topics include Talk Tools (speech and oral placement therapy tools), legal and financial matters, health and nutrition and more.
Monthly, the teens and adults with Down Syndrome, their families and their friends with other disabilities are able to take part in Social Club events such as dances, sporting event parties, bingo, movies, bowling, overnighters and more.
The school’s largest annual fundraiser is the Cinderella Ball, scheduled for March 19, 2016. However, the school is always looking for donations, volunteers and teachers (regular and substitute), as they continue to grow. If you are interested in finding out more about the Down Syndrome Academy or Friends of Down Syndrome, contact Rosa Rocha at 281-989-0345 or [email protected] or visit www.friendsofdownsyndrome.org.