Free Lance-Star reporter Amy Umble covers Stafford County schools and other education issues

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Stafford school wins national award for ingenuity

The Heather Empfield Day School in Stafford received a national award for innovation. The National Association of Counties gave the school its Achievement Award for its “successful and creative approach to addressing educational issues in the community,” according to a Stafford County press release.

And these days, few community educational issues are as pressing as educating students with autism. The number of Stafford students with autism has more than tripled in the past 10 years and continues to rise. The Centers for Disease Control recently reported that 1 in 88 American children has autism.

In 2009, as Stafford schools tried to respond to the growing demand of educating these students, the school system and the county’s Human Services Office teamed up to create a new program: The Heather Empfield Day School.  Initial renovations for the school were paid for by federal stimulus money and the school system’s budget.

At the time, Stafford sent its most difficult cases–those with aggression or an inability to learn in special-education classes–to private day schools at a cost of $70,000 to $109,000 each year, not including transportation. Most of those schools were in Northern Virginia.

The average cost of sending a student to the Heather Empfield Day School is $28,000 each year, which is much cheaper.

Students at the school have autism or emotional disabilities. The school offers specialized sensory therapies, behavior support, academics and a vocational program.

Stafford County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Stimpson said:

“The best part of the school winning a national award is that other localities can gain inspiration from what we did here in Stafford.  Human Services and our school system came up with an efficient, cost-effective way to provide cutting-edge services to make a difference in the lives of children and their families.”

The school is named for Heather Empfield, who was the coordinator of autism programs in Stafford when she died at the age of 38.

The school system also has a scholarship in Empfield’s name that helps teachers, paraprofessionals and administrators who want to learn more about autism.

To contribute, make checks payable to Stafford County Public Schools and indicate the gift is for the Heather Empfield Scholarship. Donations should be mailed to the Office of Resource Development, 31 Stafford Ave., Stafford, Va. 22554.