The Zachariah Connell Elementary School in Connellsville was once a home of learning and growth. In less than a year, its new owners are hoping the classrooms will once again serve an educational purpose.

Since the Highlands Hospital Regional Center for Autism along Breakneck Road in Connellsville opened in 2011 under a contract with the Cleveland Clinic, they have quadrupled in size. Six years ago, the four students were from the Connellsville and Frazier school districts. Now, they service 16 students from five different districts.

“The building is fairly small now, and we’re pretty much maxed out,” said Jordan Morran, director of the center. Once in the new building, they plan to apply for a license that would allow for double that amount.

Right now, donor funds are being raised and grants are being sought to help with the renovations of the former Connellsville Area School District building.

Morran said they’re looking forward to expanding their classroom sizes.

“We’re excited for the staff, but also for the students. Because we’ve grown so much, it’s pretty tight in here,” Morran said. “Everyone is anxious about more space.”

Students with autism can come to the school one of two ways. Morran said typically, parents seek alternative class options when their child’s needs aren’t being met in a public school. The schools, however, can recommend the specialized center for teaching needs if they feel their program isn’t the best fit for the student.

“Our goal, if this is appropriate placement, is to equip them with the skills they need and transition them back into public schools,” Morran said. There are students currently at the center who are doing just that — trying the public school setting one afternoon a week.

The center offers a number of programs specialized for education growth and life skills. One of their more popular programs is the functional living training.

“Because students are getting older, and we have teenagers here now, we’ve started vocational training. We want to prepare them to hold a job now, or after they graduate,” Morran noted.

In that curriculum, students learn everything from office-type and facilities work to cleaning.

They’re even given the chance to use those skills in an organic environment once a week at the hospital’s wellness center. There, they greet the guests and clean machines, all while being able to practice skills they’ve learned in a real atmosphere, Morran said.

“We need bigger classroom size,” Morran said with a laugh. “And the new building will have that.”

There would also be more outdoor options, including an enclosed tennis court.

Indoors, one of the highlights is the gymnasium. At the current location, if the weather is poor, students don’t have outdoor options or an area to play.

“The gym would provide so many opportunities for not only recess, but for extracurricular, sports-type activities,” Morran said, noting that they’ve even discussed the possibilities of a basketball team. “There would be so much more they can do, and more opportunities to grow.”

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