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.