Cypress School opens second campus to meet students' needs

Just a few months ago, 5-year-old Ethan couldn't tell his parents what he did at school when he came home. Getting into the car, going to the grocery store and being a typical kid at the playground can be difficult situations for Ethan.

While Ethan doesn't have an official diagnosis, he is nonverbal and developmentally delayed, said his mother, Michelle Mansfield.

"He never told me about his day, he never attempted to share with me, even though I'd say, 'How was your day?'" Mansfield said.

But since attending the Cypress School since December, everything has changed for Ethan, Mansfield said.

A program of United Cerebral Palsy of the North Bay, the school seeks to serve those whose education and support needs may not be met in the public school system. Students like Ethan are referred by their local school districts if it is determined that their needs cannot be met in the public school system.

"On day two (of attending Cypress), he was telling me about his day," Mansfield said. "I was in Petaluma driving back from Cypress, and he was telling me, 'duck, duck, goose.' And I looked in my rearview mirror and he was patting his head — I realized he was telling me about playing duck, duck, goose."

The school is challenging him to be as verbal as possible, she said, but they also understand him.

"He's able to excel at Cypress," Mansfield said. "He's getting his academics, letters and numbers, but what was amazing and struck me that this was the place we need to be, was that his teachers realized this is a kid who can't just sit down for a while and work on academics. (His teacher) was able to pinpoint that I get a lot out of Ethan if I let him stand at the table."

Having grown its student population from a mere three students when it opened in 2007 to its current 55, the Cypress School — which serves children with autism and other special developmental and education needs — has opened a second campus in Petaluma.

While the school's first campus will continue to serve students from grades nine through 12, and post-secondary students; the new campus, which is called Cypress Primary School and opened last week down the street from the original campus — will host the school's younger population — about 26 kids ages 5 to 13, or grades kindergarten through eighth — and will feature classrooms, space for art classes (including a painted chalkboard wall), sensory rooms, speech therapy rooms and traditional therapy rooms.

These features might not be priorities in a typical California public school, but Cypress is different.

"Because our children are active, the location we chose is ideal," said school director Laura Briggin. "What we (were) looking for was areas of open space, a lot of nature, fresh air — we do a morning walk, every morning, all of the kids ride bikes, scooters and some kids go out for 15 minutes and some for 50 minutes."

That activity helps students maintain appropriate behavior and is also good for them physically, Briggin said.

The Cypress model of education includes functional academics and therapeutic community based activities, including a quarter-acre organic farm, where the kids grow organic food and then deliver it to food banks in Petaluma, as well as therapeutic horseback riding, gymnastics and dance, and outings that include real life skills such as grocery shopping and cooking.

Each classroom is divided into groups of about seven to nine students, with one special education teacher and about four teaching aides per group of kids — creating a teacher-to-student ratio of 1:2.

The school employs a speech therapist, occupational therapist, orientation and mobility therapist for those with visual impairments and a marriage and family therapist, and it serves students with a variety of developmental needs, including autism, cerebral palsy, epilepsy with developmental disabilities and syndromes like mosaic syndrome and Jacobsen syndrome.

With the new campus and additional space, Briggin said the school will start accepting new students, but it will be a slow process.

Andrea Nielsen, a special education teacher for the younger students at the school, said she sees a tremendous difference in her students, including Ethan, as a result of the community activities they do.

Nielsen said the other part she likes about taking the kids into the community to work and play is that it desensitizes the community a bit in terms of dealing with students and others who appear different or might have different emotional and educational needs, and mitigates what might be intolerance toward such students.

"We have a lot of friends in the community," Briggin said. Bringing Cypress students out to help in the community allows for a different experience for the kids than what they are used to.

"We're teaching the kids how to talk and tie their shoes and some basic things," Briggin said. But by helping to grow and distribute food for the needy, "they're able to give to other people — usually people are giving to them — but here, they can give to their community."

(Contact Annie Sciacca at argus@arguscourier.com)