Maybe the only thing brighter than the morning sun that shone over the groundbreaking of the new campus of the Green Tree School was the smile on Dominic Jefferson's face.

Jefferson is 17, and has attended Green Tree's program for students with autism for seven years.

On Tuesday morning, he joined with city and school officials and some of his classmates to toss shovels full of dirt signifying the beginning of construction on a $13.1 million facility at 1196 E. Washington Lane.

Founded in 1957 by parents whose special-needs children were being marginalized in public schools, the private Green Tree School offers tuition-free programs for about 150 students with emotional disabilities, preschool developmental delays and autism, from ages 3 to 21.

The school also offers "wraparound" programs for students who attend their neighborhood schools but need one-to-one aides throughout the day, and operates a long-running culinary arts vocational program founded by one-time Green Tree teacher and noted restaurateur Steven Poses.

Dig it and they will build

Before the ceremony got underway, Jefferson waited with a group of classmates, and when asked what he was looking forward to most in the new school, he didn't hesitate before declaring, "I just can't wait for the groundbreaking."

So when the time came to take shovel in hand, he was ready.

Doreen Williams, who coordinates Green Tree's autism spectrum disorder (ASD) program, said Jefferson was an embodiment of the kind of progress that the school makes with students living with autism.

When Williams came to the school, his aversion to being touched was often misinterpreted as aggression, his need for structure and predictability mistaken for being "difficult," she said.

"Over the years, we just tried different techniques," and now Jefferson is able to cope with the unexpected much more easily, talking himself through his anxieties, Williams said.

Her pride was obvious.

Need for specialized education rises

As the number of children in the U.S. diagnosed with ASDs has exploded, so has the demand for the kind of specialized education the Green Tree School provides, school officials said.

In 2000, Green Tree's ASD program had two students. Today, there are 22. Nearly half of the 72 children in the school's preschool early intervention program display autistic symptoms.

"The students who come to Green Tree are here because the [school district] has exhausted its means to handle them," said Herman Axelrod, the school's recently-retired former executive director. "We take the most difficult of the most difficult."

About 85 percent of the students come from households living in poverty, and the school provides a program in coordination with PhilAbundance where students take home a backpack filled with food each weekend to share with their families. Many are in foster care or from households affected by drug and alcohol abuse; the school provides clinical psychiatric care.

"We really acknowledge the concept that a child should be educated in the least restrictive environment," said attorney Fred Strober, a longtime member of the school's board of trustees. "In some cases, we are the last stop before residential treatment."

End of a long journey

It took nearly 12 years for Green Tree to find and acquire a new location, raise money toward a new facility and secure financing for the rest.

Currently located in four buildings at two different sites — one on Walnut Lane and another on Johnson Street — teachers and staff said they are looking forward to the continuity that being under a single roof will provide.

The 2.4-acre site was formerly the site of the Ivy Leaf School, which has since moved to a different location.

The three-level Green Tree building will have curtain glass walls, 110 parking spaces, a gymnasium, library, industrial and culinary arts rooms, an outdoor track and a 4,000 square-foot recreation area. The new building will increase the school's capacity by about 30 students.

Construction is expected to take about a year.

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