CHIPLEY - In the short time since school started at the newly opened Washington Academy of Varying Exceptionalities, four-year-old Lilith has learned how to say quite a few words.
"She doesn't really talk yet, but coming here, she has learned to say 'more' in sign language, she says thank you," said Lilith's mother Melissa Nowell.
"She is progressing more," she added.
Nowell's excitement about the new school is a testament of the impact of the School Board's decision to open a school designed to meet the needs of students with a range of abilities.
Washington County Chamber of Commerce held a ribbon-cutting on Monday afternoon for the new school, which is housed at the former 5th grade wing of Roulhac Middle School.
The event also served as a moment of gratitude from school district officials.
"This is for our future," said Superintendent Joseph Taylor. "This is something the district wanted for our own community, for own needs, for our students' needs more than anything else."
"When we talked about this in the beginning of the summer, it was like 'well, we're looking at maybe 30,' but now we're sitting her with 52 students," he said. "Obviously there's a need here. It benefits the students and the family."
In addition to adding new students to the program, the school offers a qualitative learning environment for optimal academic and social and behavioral success.
The school has its own administrator, speech therapist, behavioral specialist, and a number of ESE-dedicated teachers and paraprofessionals.
Each classroom has an interactive touch-screen board and five computer stations. Although the school is self-contained, there are opportunities for middle and high school students to interact with their peers outside of the school during lunch and, for some, elective classes.
One recent milestone occurred last week when Teacher on Special Assignment Brenda Bausnaw took students to qualify for the Special Olympics. She said the group will compete against students at Hope School in Marianna.
"We just keep growing and growing," Bausnaw said. "We're excited, the students are excited."
Monday's event was nothing short of a celebration. WAVE student Miranda, 14, played with and followed her little sister Lilith, as the little one energetically ran around and tugged at her mother's gray tank top shirt that read "A proud autism mom" on the outer edges of a colorful heart-shaped puzzle - a symbol of autism. Eventually, they ended up in Ms. Linda Mincey's pre-K classroom.
"We're replacing a non-communication system with a communication system," Mincey said, pointing at various words on a poster board that give students the ability to communicate how they feel and what they would like to do. "Boards are everywhere in the classroom. Everything we do revolves around the communication system."
Mincey said WAVE is effective because it unites resources and individuals who have confidence in "a like-minded system to help individuals with special needs." She said it is amazing to have a communication system now, because that had not always been available.
As a teacher for 17 years in the school district, Mincey said the opening of WAVE came "full-circle," referencing a former student she taught several years ago, who was non-verbal, is now a senior student at the new school.
"And he's talking to me now, he remembers me," she said with tears in the wells of her eyes. "He comes in every morning. And it's special."