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West Orange Times & Observer Wednesday, Sep. 29, 2021 3 weeks ago

Long time coming

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United Cerebral Palsy of Central Florida cut the ribbon last week on its new campus at 1441 Winter Garden-Vineland Road on Sept. 21.
by: Jim Carchidi Associate Editor

On the surface, West Orange’s newest charter school is what you would expect; handmade posters and backpack racks line the walls while craft projects and educational games cover the tables. But a closer look reveals a unique environment where challenges are met with innovation and inclusivity.

Speech Language Pathologist Lisette Diaz high-fives Elias Rodriguez as he makes progress during an outpatient session.

United Cerebral Palsy of Central Florida cut the ribbon on its new campus at 1441 Winter Garden-Vineland Road on Sept. 21. The UCP Healthy West Orange Campus follows the model of its former West Orange location but offers twice the capacity, accommodating a total of 500 students.

“We broke ground in October of last year, just seeing the need and we were outgrowing our space,” UCP of Central Florida Senior Director of Development Nancy Mireles said. “It opened in time for this school year and gives us the opportunity to have charter school education, starting with pre-K and moving through fifth grade.” 

In addition to classrooms, the eight-acre campus offers therapy and counseling services that are not limited to members. 

“Charter students can receive therapy, but it also works as outpatient therapy,” Mireles said. “So you don’t have to be a charter school student to receive therapy here.”

The campus was funded through a long list of community donors, including ABC Fine Wine and Spirits. Company Vice President Charles Bailes is also a member of the Foundation Board of United Cerebral Palsy of Central Florida.

Special education student Kaiden Douglas works with teacher’s assistant Morgan Tindall as paraprofessional Jennifer Schampier instructs another group.

“We started talking about this project about three years ago,” he said. “We had a waiting list at the West Orange campus. We weren’t supplying the need, so we started dreaming.”

A $1.5 million grant from the West Orange Healthcare District was a big step toward making the dream a reality.

“We felt their educational and health programing was excellent,” West Orange Healthcare District Board Chair Rod Talbot said. “We also saw where it was going to double the capacity of the number of students and families they were serving, so it was just a perfect fit for us.”

UCP Healthy West Orange Campus features engaging, inclusive environments with an active learning curriculum.

UCP’s education model creates an environment where students with any disability can learn alongside children without disabilities. The experience provides opportunities for social and emotional growth, and prepares for integration into a mainstream class environment.

Each classroom is led by one teacher and two paraprofessionals, who assist with teaching, class management and administrative needs. Class size ranges from nine to 18 students and is customized, depending on age range and needs of the children.

“There’s about 70 to 80 staff members,” UCP Central Florida CEO Dr. Ilene Wilkins said. “It’s a combination of teachers, therapists, social workers and administration staff. And one of the things we’re really proud of is this campus is 81% fully vaccinated.”

According to Dr. Wilkins, plans are already in the works for an expansion, just behind the new building, with infrastructure already complete. The shell of the new facility is expected to be complete within six months, and progress will be made as additional funds are received.

“We set out to raise money, and we have a $9 million building,” Bailes said. “We’re opening debt-free, and it’s just a miracle. Now, kids can get therapy, education and interaction with other kids. That’s why we exist.”

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Jim Carchidi is an associate editor for the West Orange Times & Observer, Southwest Orange Observer and OrangeObserver.com. He has more than two decades of journalism experience in Central Florida, including positions at the Orlando Sentinel and the Orlando Business Journal. He holds a...

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