The Joshua School’s start in 2005 was hailed as a “radical (yet) heartfelt” effort by six former special education teachers in the Denver Public Schools who believed there was a way to better serve children with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities.
Apparently they were right because today, with a capacity enrollment of 100 students between the ages of 2 and 21 on campuses in Englewood, Centennial and Boulder and a waiting list for admission to its Early Intervention Center, The Joshua School is regarded as one of the nation’s top schools of its type. It has been cited for achieving “superior results” with its structured environments and teaching strategies that focus on helping each student lead his or her best possible life.
“We concentrate on the individual,” says executive director Ed Nichols. “We don’t put our children in a room with 30 or 40 others. There are four students per class, with a 1:1 student-teacher ratio to better address the specific needs of each student.” In addition, board-certified behavior analysts are on campus daily, as are occupational therapists, speech and language specialists and psychologists equipped to handle the depression, anxiety and other mental health issues associated with autism.
A remarkable 80 percent of Joshua’s early intervention program graduates have been able to continue their education in less restrictive, general education classrooms. Outings to stores and businesses one would encounter in everyday life help students develop the communication and interpersonal skills necessary for transitioning from Joshua’s one-on-one culture to functioning independently in what Nichols describes as “one against the world” situations like grocery shopping, getting a haircut, eating at a restaurant or going to a doctor’s appointment. Peer mentors help prepare students for interaction and inclusion, both on and off campus.
The Transition Program teams with 40 local businesses, including Spice of Life Catering, Happy Dog Ranch and Goodwill to provide training and internship opportunities for the older Joshua students. They are students like 17-year-old Ryan, who is in his fourth year at Joshua. He is being schooled in automotive repair at Teaching the Autism Community Trades, a Denver nonprofit that was the first in the nation to offer instruction in trade and technical skills exclusively to those with autism. Ryan also works at Share Good Foods, which prepares “grab and go” food for coffee shops and other venues.
“Our goal with the Transition Program is paid employment for everyone,” notes Kate Loving, who describes her post as Joshua’s director of education as the “best, most challenging and rewarding job I have ever had.”
Joshua’s success, Nichols maintains, is reflected in its belief that “Every child is smart, competent and whole exactly as he or she is, and dignity is the birthright of every human being. We believe our children … have a right to aspire to a life of their choosing. Together we strive to give our students lives filled with possibility, happiness and belonging.”
Parent involvement is key. Home visits help the staff to better understand the family dynamic. A parent is required to be part of the Individualized Education Program that is developed for each child and a daily “back-and-forth" between the family and Joshua staffers offers “a delicate, but essential, interplay that helps bring a successful outcome.”
“Some of our kids have had challenges with other schools, and so we make our classrooms as welcoming as possible to let them know that Joshua is a safe place, with people they can trust,” Loving adds.
Ten-year-old Brady, who started at The Joshua School in July, 2018, indicates that is true, declaring that he “Really likes this school because the teachers are nice.”
The Joshua School is certified by the Colorado Department of Education and currently draws students from 13 school districts. Insurance covers tuition for early intervention students, and funds from individual school districts and the state offsets tuition that costs private-pay families upwards of $75,000 annually.
As the number of diagnosed cases of autism increases—one in every 59 children across the United States is affected by it—Nichols and his board of directors are exploring ways to address the growing need.
“Can we expand sufficiently to meet all needs?” Nichols asks. “No. But we can help.”
Joshua’s operating expenses are met through corporate and foundation grants; fundraising events such as the April 13 gala to be held at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House with entertainment by Phamaly Theatre Company; individual gifts and money generated from Colorado Gives Day.
The purchase of the historic David W. Brown House in Englewood that was built in 1918 as a wedding present to Brown’s daughter and is Joshua’s main campus and administrative staff headquarters, was made possible by gifts from supporters like Betty Peterson and her husband, Ralph, who had been CEO of CH2M Hill he died in 2009.
Nichols came to Joshua in 2016, following a 20-year career with IBM and his eight-year tenure as president and chief executive officer of History Colorado. The executive director’s job was open and Nichols’ friend, George Sparks, president and CEO of Denver Museum of Nature & Science recommended that Nichols hold down the fort until the job was filled. Six months later, the board of directors asked Nichols to take the job permanently.
The school is named in memory of a student who was on the autism spectrum but died from an unrelated cause. “He was a favorite of the founders and it was their love for him that helped make The Joshua School a reality,” Nichols said. “Every year on Joshua’s birthday we serve his two favorite foods: Cheetos and Pepsi-Cola.”
The Joshua School
2303 E. Dartmouth Ave.
Englewood, CO 80113
Joshua Early Childhood Center
5760 E. Otero Ave.
Centennial, CO 80112
Joshua School Boulder
7077 Harvest Rd.
Boulder, CO 80301
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