Pressley Ridge launches new multi-faceted school featuring sensory-friendly learning environments

By: Atiya Irvin-Mitchell

Sometimes there are children with needs neither public schools nor specialized schools can reasonably meet, requiring families to look elsewhere for an education. There’s no price tag on the value of education, and the new $12 million Pressley Ridge School for Autism and the Deaf will help ensure all students have access to one.

“Pressley Ridge currently operates six schools and this is going to be a brand new school that educates our children with autism and who are deaf,” Susanne Cole, Pressley Ridge president, and CEO said. “This will be a new school built from the ground up.”

The organization began serving children as an orphanage in the 1800s and expanded its services to include education in the 1990s with its School for the Deaf and School for Autism. The new institution has been in development for a number of years now. Pressley Ridge has been leasing a number of buildings throughout the Pittsburgh area as satellite locations for their autistic and hard of hearing student populations. Pressley Ridge serves over 7,300 children and families in total, across all their services. The new expansion will offer a singular location for the 59 students at the School for Autism and Deaf.

According to Amy McQuillan, who serves as the program director for the School for the Deaf, the road to Pressley Ridge for many students is a long one littered with trial and error at other institutions.

“I think a lot of families really felt previously that there’s no one like their daughter or son and that nobody knew the best way to help them,” she said. “They’ve seen them struggle and they may have had behavioral issues at home and they may not have been able to be successful in public schools. So families often times feel that they’re at the end of their rope and they don’t know what else to do. So when they come to Pressley Ridge they’re often very relieved.”

With the merger between schools, Pressley Ridge is aiming to also help aid children with overlapping issues. The new, centralized location will provide much-needed space and stability for students as well as staff. Over the years the constant moves were exhausting and after so many locations not built to suit their needs, the Northside campus will be a relief and an opportunity to expand in the future.

“It can be very isolating because if a child is deaf or has autism, in a lot of places they’re usually focusing on one issue or the other and there’s not necessarily a team of people who know how to best meet the needs of a child with both of those issues,” McQuillan said.

Student needs vary from child to child. Sometimes the goal is transitioning students to adult services upon graduation, other times it can be preparing students to return to public school. Whatever path an individual student may on be when they arrive, Pressley Ridge is focused on enhancing students academic, social, and behavioral skills, Cole said.

What sets the new school apart from previous buildings leased, according to Cole, will be that it’s built around the needs of students and staff. The new school will include a sensory-friendly environment, that offers students calming areas with adjustable lighting and a host of activities designed to help children relax, destress or to energize themselves, depending on a child’s specific needs. It will also provide visual aids for hard of hearing and deaf students.

The new Pressley Ridge will try to give students the opportunity to explore a wide variety of interests by making STEAM labs and culinary classrooms available for their use on campus. Additionally, students will have access to Practical Assessment Exploration System (PAES) labs where they can explore different career possibilities in simulated environments.

“We’re always trying to get our kids ready for their next phase of life and trying to prepare them for whatever they’re going to do as adults,” Cole said. “Whether that’s college or vocational school.”

Pressley Ridge’s new 30,000-square-feet facility broke ground in March on their Pittsburgh campus, located in Marshall-Shadeland. The hope is that while they’re currently at capacity with 55 students, with a larger, permanent home, the school will be open to taking more referrals from other districts.

“My hope for this new school is that it really provides a sensory-friendly environment for children that allows them to achieve at their highest level. I hope that they will see it as a space that allows them to grow and be successful and overcome some of the challenges they’re facing,” said Cole.

Construction on the school is expected to be completed in May 2019 and will be open to students for the 2019-2020 school year.

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