|Ethan, a student at the Aurora School in Leesburg for children with autism, climbs up the inflatable cake that was part of the school’s 10th anniversary celebration July 12. Former Washington Redskins player Marcus Washington was a special guest and signed autographs. —Times-Mirror Staff Photo/Beverly Denny|
A multitiered inflatable cake sat in the center of the room. In the corner, Washington Redskins linebacker Marcus Washington signed miniature football as people nearby flashed photographs. Kids piled into the room, licking snow cones, while awaiting the cake cutting to celebrate the Aurora School's anniversary.
Students, parents and staff gathered July 13 to celebrate the Leesburg school, which for the past 10 years has served students with intellectual disabilities.
Since 2009, Aurora has been on the Paxton Campus off of Catoctin Circle. Formally a sprawling residence for the Paxton family, the nearly 17 acres now boast a myriad of groups to serve Loudoun's disabled population.
While the students enjoyed sweetened goodies and the mini footballs, the staff marveled at the progress made by a school that 10 years ago had just three students.
Services for children with autism aren't abundant and a decade ago were more limited than they are now.
Jennifer Lassiter, executive director of Paxton Campus, discovered that herself after she had her daughter, Katelyn, who is now 16.
“The public school had recommended a private placement for my daughter, Katelyn,” Lassiter said. “I looked at the private schools in the area and there were not any in Loudoun County, first of all, and none of them met her needs.”
With support from the Arc of Loudoun, a board that helps serve those with disabilities, Lassiter and two other parents started the Aurora School in a small facility in Purcellville. Lassiter acted as the director of the school, though for a while solely on a volunteer basis.
For some parents, the effect the school had on its families was immeasurable.
“My son said his first words here, at age 10,” said Chuck Allen, whose son Kyle was one of the first three children in the program.
As students from Maryland, West Virginia, Washington D.C. and Virginia flocked to the campus, Aurora quickly blossomed. By the end of 2004, with more than 15 students, Aurora outgrew its Purcellville home.
A dream fulfilled
Paxton Manor originally was a vacation home for the wealthy Paxton family and then became a primary residence. The manor itself is on the registry of National Historic Places and is in fact a non-contiguous part of the Leesburg Historic District.
But Rachel Paxton, the family matriarch, above all, had a passion for children. From her death in 1921 up until the 1950s, the manor was utilized as a summer home for convalescent children. From 1954 to 1980 it was an orphanage and from 1980 to 2004 it was a childcare center.
The trustees were pondering what to do with the property when Lassiter came in contact with St. James Episcopal Church in Leesburg, where the late Paxton used to attend. In 2005, Lassiter looked at the site and immediately saw a fit.
“I could see the school being here but it was a long process of getting everything ADA accessible and all of that.” Lassiter said. “The trustees of the property have been wonderful.”
In December of 2009, the Aurora School moved into its new home.
With the move, the school now serves 30 children and in December will bring in five more.
Much like the autism spectrum itself, the capabilities of the children vary greatly. Aurora utilizes a small student to teacher ratio and are able to provide one-on-one teaching for all students.
“All of the curriculum for our students is individualized to their needs,” explained Courtney Vaughan, director of administration at the school. "So we have some students that are academically at their grade level and then we have other students who are learning basic communication, tell us what they want and what they need.”
Some students stay at Aurora for only a year or two before returning to public school while others stay longer. But the campus is available to those who need it, as school districts pay the fees for the students who are unable to function in a normal public school to attend.
Aurora isn't the only thing that's grown; Paxton Campus itself has expanded to include not just Aurora, but the Open Door Learning Center, which serves children 2-6, the A Life Like Yours Advocacy Center and the Arc of Loudoun. There's also Maggie's Closet, a free thrift store, and a Paxton Campus store. Aurora students work at both stores to help in their vocational skills.
Leaders at Paxton also hope to expand the campus to include services for those who age out of Aurora at age 22.
“The waiting list for kids on this severe side of the spectrum is years long,” said Allen. “There's obviously a need for the kids once they become 22.”
But as all of the parents and staff looked forward at ways they could continue to help more people, it was nice for all of them to pause during the anniversary and look at how far they'd come.
|Former Washington Redskins player Marcus Washington, left, signs his autograph for a 12-year-old student at the Aurora School in Leesburg for children with autism along with her teacher, applied behavior analysis therapist Hillary Mazur, during the school's 10th anniversary celebration July 12. --Times-Mirror Staff Photo/Beverly Denny|
|Our Savior's Way Lutheran Church volunteers Sam Hergenroeder, 17, left, and Katie Boltwood, 22, a summer intern, get covered in cotton candy while gathering servings to give out to attendees of the Aurora School's 10th anniversary celebration July 12. --Times-Mirror Staff Photo/Beverly Denny|