School needs handicap accessible bus

Published 6:00 am Tuesday, May 16, 2017

By Melanie Ruberti


Taking school students on a field trip can be challenging for any teacher.

The task is more strenuous if those students are also learning delayed or disabled; each with different disorders and with different needs.

But giving their students an out-of-school adventure is a demanding feat teachers at Discovery Cottage are willing to take on – except for one significant problem.

The special needs school does not own a handicap accessible van. In order for the students to experience extracurricular activities, each parent must bring their child themselves.

Discovery Cottage is an extension of the LaFayette Christian School system. Currently, there are nine students enrolled at the center. Teachers work with learning delayed children who may suffer from autism, cerebral palsy and more. Instead of strictly focusing on academics, the school uses “brain-based” programs and therapy to strengthen sensory and cognitive abilities, plus social and communications skills.

Equipment, similar to what you might encounter on a playground, sits in the middle of the facility for students to practice hand/eye coordination and strengthen their peripheral vision, among many other things.

Adults accommodate their teaching methods to fit each student’s needs.

A new school bus will have to do the same thing, especially for those students who are wheelchair bound.

But a handicap accessible bus is not cheap, according to LaFayette Christian School Headmaster John Cipolla.

“In addition to meeting Georgia safety codes, the bus must have three wheelchair stations, eight additional bench seats and fire suppressant equipment,” Cipolla said.

The state of the art bus costs $98,831.

Cipolla said the Discovery Cottage can purchase it for $91,200.

The facility is in the process of raising enough funds to purchase a bus. Teachers, staff and students held a 5k walk and run called “Kilometers for the Cottage” to raise money for the vehicle last month.

“These kids just want to be like everyone else,” said Amber Donnett, director of Discovery Cottage. “They want to make memories together in activities outside of the building.”

The students have taken short field trips to eat at a restaurant and gone to a play, Donnett added. But both experiences were within walking distance from their school door: across the street to the Waffle House and down the road to Troup County High School.

But the Discovery Cottage director believes the students will create a stronger bond by taking the journey together – from start to finish.

“We are like a family and when one student is missing, there is a void,” Donnett said. “I know parents and grandparents do not mind meeting us at our destinations, but they shouldn’t have to … especially if we go out of town.”

Donnett said she has a ‘wish list’ of places she wants to take her students. The list includes simple adventures like swimming and horseback riding, to more elaborate excursions such as going to the Georgia Aquarium and the Atlanta Zoo.

But even small outings will make a difference in the students’ lives, Donnett added.

“Even field trips to the grocery store teaches them (students) life skills,” she said. “We help them look for items on sale, learn to count out money and figure out how much change they should receive back. These are all skills the kids will need to have. Going swimming is great exercise for the body and for the brain.”

Parents of Discovery Cottage students hope the school’s dream of owning its own mode of transportation will soon become a reality — especially folks like Leslie Battle, whose son, Sam, is wheelchair bound.

“We would love for Sam to be able to ride with his fellow students to field trips and such,” she said. “Not only with his fellow Discovery Cottage friends, but mainstreamed students and friends at Lafayette Christian School. This (bus) is huge in the development of our children. It would open up even more “real-world” opportunities. I have heard of schools that are able to “bus” their special-needs children to swim and horse therapy, not just typical field trips. What a world of opportunity that would provide for our kids.”

Dale Jackson agreed. His son Colin, 9, also attends Discovery Cottage.

“Not only do we hope to be able to take the students on a variety of field trips, but having a handicap accessible bus will also give us the ability to one pick up students in the mornings,” Jackson said. “As we move forward and serve more students in the community, having this bus will certainly play a large role in our ability to properly serve those students.”

Discovery Cottage plans on holding more fundraising events in the near future.

Melanie Ruberti is a reporter with LaGrange Daily News. She can be reached at 706-884-7311, ext. 2156