School serving special needs students and families, free of charge

By Nuoya Zhou

On Aug. 14, Rivermont School Rockbridge welcomed 70 special needs students to its renovated new facility in the former Rockbridge Middle School in Fairfield.

This solved the county’s problem of what to do with a 50-year-old surplus school building, which it sold to the private nonprofit corporation that operates 11 Rivermont schools throughout Virginia. It also solved the problem for parents who previously had to send children with autism and related disabilities to facilities far from home.

Rivermont is located in Fairfield, Va. It has been in its current location for less than one year. Although it no longer owns the building, Rockbridge County is allowed to use the gymnasium, the fields out back, and the entire lower level of this building for 50 years rent free. Photo: Nuoya Zhou)

“We’ve been able to bring a lot of students . . . ‘home,’ to Rockbridge County, with the opening and expansion of Rivermont to the larger setting,” Twila Brown, the director of special education in Rockbridge County, said.

The biggest benefit, however, may be that this private school now satisfies, closer to home, one of the legal obligations of local school systems – to provide a free education that meets the needs of these special-needs students up to age 22. While the average cost-per-student in Virginia is about $10,000 in public tax funds, the tuition at Rivermont, based on the common 180-day school year, ranges from $35,820 to $61,200 per student.

Parents pay nothing for this. It is covered by the pool of public funds established by the state’s 1993 Children’s Services Act.

Centra, the Lynchburg-based owner of Rivermont schools, had opened the school in a much smaller facility in 2008 in Magnolia Square, just outside Lexington in 2008. It began with 20 students, and had reached its maximum of 53 earlier this year.

“We’ve been able to bring a lot of students . . . ‘home,’ to Rockbridge County, with the opening and expansion of Rivermont to the larger setting,” Twila Brown, the director of special education in Rockbridge County, said.

The contract between the county and Centra gives the county use of the gymnasium, the fields out back, and the entire lower level of this building for 50 years rent free. Rivermont paid $1,000,000 for the renovations.

Of the 70 students now enrolled, 23 are in the autism-specific program. The students are from the school systems of Rockbridge County, Lexington, Buena Vista, Augusta County, Staunton and Waynesboro. 44 of them are from Rockbridge County.

In this photo, Principal Bob Hinkle stands in front of Christmas decorations at Rivermont. (Photo by Nuoya Zhou).

“There is definitely a big need out there for mental health services and special health services,” Bob Hinkle, principal of Rivermont School Rockbridge, said.

Rivermont’s capacity increased to 100 students in the new facility. Hinkle said he expects the enrollment to reach that eventually.

“If I have spaces, and they are appropriate, we will take them,” Hinkle said. “It gets a little overwhelming because some of these students have severe emotional disturbance. If you have too many [students], social anxiety falls into play.”

The school now has a staff of 45, mostly teachers, therapists and counselors. Next term, a few more students will be accepted. The school will be hiring more counselors and open a new classroom in addition to the eight classrooms being used now.

Rivermont follows the national special-education standard of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for each student, as regulated by the U.S. Department of Education. Students in the fourth grade and below are self-contained all day long with the same teacher and the same group of counseling staff, Hinkle said.

Students who are older take rotating classes in English, math, science, social studies, health and physical education, and social skill instruction class. All classes have eight to 10 students now.

Depending on the students’ need, teachers give lessons in toilet training, personal hygiene training, and basic respect.

The general tuition is $199 per day, while one-on-one care is $340.

Hinkle, who has been serving the school for five years, said he was glad to see the growth. However, the school has experienced some mechanical failures in the building, such as plumbing.

Hinkle also said he would like have a broader pool of qualified counselor applicants in the future.

The school is licensed by the state of Virginia and accredited by the Virginia Association of Independent Specialized Education Facilities and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.