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Georgia Southern launches partnership with Matthew Reardon Center for Autism Early Learning Academy

From left to right, assistant professor of psychology Jennifer Wertalik, Ph.D., and ELA Director Ciarra Torres are presented a check by Kristie Meyers, communications coordinator for International Paper. The $6,000 grant will help fund the partnership between Georgia Southern and the ELA.
From left to right, assistant professor of psychology Jennifer Wertalik, Ph.D., and ELA Director Ciarra Torres are presented a check by Kristie Meyers, communications coordinator for International Paper. The $6,000 grant will help fund the partnership between Georgia Southern and the ELA.

The Georgia Southern University College of Behavioral and Social Sciences (CBSS) is teaming up with the Matthew Reardon Center for Autism’s (MRCA) Early Learning Academy (ELA) in Savannah to provide preschool students the best education possible.

“Responding to community demand, the ELA and Georgia Southern University’s College of Behavioral and Social Sciences have partnered to create an excellent, evidence-based preschool that engages every child at his or her level of development upon enrollment and builds individual educational plans to ensure that every child ascends to the height of their abilities,” said Patti Victor, CEO of the Matthew Reardon Center for Autism.

The ELA is an inclusion preschool for students with and without autism. It uses a research-and-play-based curriculum that encompasses all aspects of education, from social-emotional development to the sciences and art. A $6,000 grant from International Paper will help fund the ELA’s partnership with Georgia Southern.

CBSS Dean Ryan Schroeder, Ph.D.

As part of the new agreement, CBSS will send a faculty member and two practicum students from the Applied Behavior Analysis Program to the ELA to do assessments, help design curriculum, and oversee and train staff members on how to best approach each individual student. 

“One of the goals here in CBSS is to make a real-world impact on our surrounding communities,” said CBSS Dean Ryan Schroeder, Ph.D. “By using the academic expertise that we have on the Armstrong Campus and bringing it out into the community, that’s one of our ways in which we’re making an impact: through our research and through our service.”

CBSS faculty members currently work with staff at the MRCA’s Advance Academy, a year-round day school for children with autism, and students from Georgia Southern have been doing their practicums with the MRCA for the last decade. 

Victor said Georgia Southern students have become an important part of the center, during their time as interns and beyond. The experience they gain in the MRCA classrooms under guidance from Georgia Southern faculty is important when starting their careers, which often begin at the MRCA.   

“Practicums offer intense, hands-on opportunities to learn and apply behavioral and relational skills in educational settings with children significantly impacted by autism under the supervision of experienced staff and Georgia Southern faculty,” Victor said. “Interns have become an integral component in staffing classrooms. In fact, we frequently hire our practicum students after graduation.” 

MRCA teachers and staff members benefit immensely from the research and observation done by CBSS faculty, such as assistant professor Jennifer Wertalik, Ph.D., who specializes in behavior analysis. 

“Dr. Wertalik does a wonderful job incorporating behavior analysis into our research-based curriculum, creating plans for children with and without disabilities, and providing training and feedback to ELA teachers in the classroom,” ELA Director Ciarra Torres said. “She also ensures that practicum students are maximizing hands-on experience with all children in the classroom.”

Victor said she wants the benefits of the existing partnership and past collaboration to transfer to the ELA. 

“As I have worked with new Georgia Southern administrators, Dean Ryan Schroder, Associate Dean John Kraft, Vice President of Academic Affairs Carl Reiber and, of course, President Kyle Marrero, I am enthused at the innovative energy I sense among them all, and I am absolutely delighted to begin this new partnership venture,” Victor said.

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