By Alexandra Roland
Four years ago, educator Debi Johnson saw a gap in the local education system for children with special needs when a resource center moved and she chose to remain in the area.
Johnson had been the principal at the Renaissance Learning Center for 12 years, serving children on the autism spectrum in the central Palm Beach County area. Given an opportunity to relocate to a larger facility, the center moved north to Jupiter. Johnson, a handful of staff and a group of parents decided to stay put.
“It really started around a kitchen table,” she recalled. “A group of parents and staff came to me and said, ‘We need to start something new down here for this group of students, who, for whatever reason — either financially or just the distance — could not travel all the way up to Jupiter to attend school.”
The first year, the Connections Education Center of the Palm Beaches started as a private school with 22 students. The following year, it became a charter school with 35 students ages three to 14. In 2018, the school outgrew its facility and moved into a new one with 65 students, and also established a high school. Currently, the school is thriving with a total of 84 students enrolled.
Behind the growth is a team of educators devoted to providing quality and comprehensive education in a school system that has the potential to suffer because of a lack of robust funding. Also, acting as advocates, educators in the special needs sector tend to be in it for the long haul.
A Wellington resident since 1976, Johnson has always been drawn to the field of education. She discovered her calling almost five decades ago.
“I was doing some volunteer work when I was in high school, and one of the families that was coming to the place where I was volunteering had a little one with special needs,” Johnson said. “I remember babysitting for them, and I really fell in love with that family and saw the challenges and struggles they went through. I admired their courage and perseverance in getting what they needed for their child. I thought I really wanted to be a part of that. I always knew I wanted to be a teacher.”
Today, Johnson holds a master’s degree in special education and has 21 years under her belt as an educational specialist at a mental health center for children and families.
From there she worked in the early intervention field for children from birth to three years of age at the St. Mary’s Child Development Center as a teacher supervisor.
Shortly thereafter, Johnson began working with children on the autism spectrum. Johnson became a board member and then principal at the Renaissance Learning Center, rounding out a more than 40-year career in the field of education.
Johnson has seen her fair share of gains in the field, but from where she is standing, she feels additional growth will most benefit the students of today and tomorrow.
“We, as an education system, need to look at exactly what needs to be done, not just for students at the early intervention level, and then in elementary, middle and high school, but then also look into what we’re going to be doing with all these students who are becoming adults and entering the workforce,” Johnson said. “I think we need to provide opportunities for students in an inclusive setting, and also specific programs for students who might need a bit more than an inclusive setting would provide for them.”
Johnson is an advocate of capitalizing on students’ potential and assessing their skills and needs to equip them to flourish after graduation. “What we see so many times in the news are the students who are capable of working in a full-time situation in a job setting with some supports. What we don’t show is that large group of students who are going to need full-time support to be able to contribute to the workforce. That is where, I think, the push needs to be. That requires so much time and funds, and also manpower.”
The curriculum structure is such at the Connections Education Center of the Palm Beaches that it aims to maximize the potential and progress of each student via community-integrated initiatives, such as therapeutic riding and vocational work at the Vinceremos Therapeutic Riding Center in Loxahatchee Groves.
The education center pioneered a health and wellness program starting last year incorporating a twice weekly aquatics initiative that features water safety and swimming instruction. Fitness and healthy eating are included in the daily curriculum.
“We have one particular student. He will be graduating from our high school in two years. He has been to numerous schools, kind of searching for the right place to be,” Johnson said. “He has absolutely blossomed in the last year and a half and really has found his place here. He has done beautifully [at Vinceremos], and we see him as a young adult possibly working there.”
The school has graduated two students thus far, and Johnson projects that approximately 10 students will graduate next year. “That’s why we’re very committed right now to really try to provide some adult services,” she said.
As the education center bursts at the seams, parents and Johnson herself are hoping to grow into a facility that functions as a community center, workplace and recreational center hybrid, extending the support scaffolding for their students beyond conventional education.
This will work in tandem with Johnson’s goals to build on enriching the center’s existing initiatives.
“We named the school ‘connections’ because that is part of our mission — to be a family center, which sets us apart from a lot of other programs,” she said. “It’s driven by what the parents tell us they need and want, what the staff and students need and want.”
The school is focused on raising funds to meet these long-term goals. In early February, school supporters will host their second annual Hearts and Hands Gala to raise money to support current and future services. Last year, more than 200 guests attended, and the event netted just over $100,000.
Nearing retirement within the next 10 years, Johnson hopes to leave a legacy that will inspire enduring growth. For now, she is busy leading a team whose focus is to provide comprehensive support to the special needs community of Wellington, West Palm Beach and beyond, and to help individuals to create and sustain their own lives.
The Hearts and Hands 2019 Connections Gala will be held Saturday, Feb. 2 at the National Croquet Center featuring dinner and dancing, as well as silent and live auctions.
Visit www.connectedpb.com to learn more about the gala and the school itself.