He used to sit in a corner, ignoring people and refusing to make eye contact. Now, he calls his kindergarten classmates "the friends" and greets them with a hug. His teacher has dubbed him the unofficial head of the class welcoming committee.
"He's a completely different kid now," said his mom, Melanie Musum of Orlando. "All those red flags he had at age 2 are gone, and he will live a normal life. I just can't say enough about what UCP has done for him."
The recent groundbreaking for the East Orange/Bailes campus in Central Florida Research Park will allow UCP of Central Florida to make a difference for a lots of future kindergarten students. The historic $9.2 million 32,000-square-foot center is due to open in August.
Working with researchers from the University of Central Florida, the Bailes center will serve 360 kids from infancy through third grade in an environment that emphasizes inclusion — helping all students get the most out of learning, whether they're gifted, have special needs or are just typical learners.
In theory, inclusion takes place at all public schools, but most simply don't have the staff to spend much one-on-one time with students.
UCP is different. First, there is a low teacher-student ratio — about 1-to-5 at the current east Orange campus where Ryan attends, which is housed in a series of storefronts at a strip mall. And all teachers, including those for preschool, have at least a college degree in education. Many also have master's degrees in exceptional education or communication disorders, or other special credentials.
UCP, which has raised $5.2 million of the construction costs so far, already has seven small centers throughout Central Florida, but the programs have been so successful that they've run out of room. At the current east Orange campus, there is space for only 80 students - 180 remain on a waiting list.
"There's a philosophy here that permeates the whole school — that every child can learn, but that every child learns differently," said Ilene E. Wilkins, UCP of Central Florida president and CEO. "There is no dumbing down. Even a child that's gifted will get challenged. And it will also have an element that I think we're missing in our society — caring about each other, empathy, learning to respect others."
Diagnosed at age 2, Ryan barely spoke and wouldn't respond to his own name or follow directions. His parents were told that he would never develop a sense of humor or understand the concept of "no." When Musum first tried to enroll him in preschool, teachers suggested he leave because he was too disruptive.
Now, he already reads and writes and has taught himself the sign-language alphabet. And he rarely stops smiling.
"For so long, our knee-jerk reaction to people with differences was to segregate them in some way," said Rebecca Hines, an associate professor in the department of child, family and community sciences at University of Central Florida. "And then it was to put them in classrooms but without support, and that was a disaster."
But the UCP model also puts speech, occupational and other therapists on site, so they can talk directly to teachers on how their students are faring in the classroom. Hines said the new facility will rank among the nation's "most progressive schools."
For more information about the new facility, visit the UCP of Central Florida Web site.