WINTHROP — Winthrop students attending an autism program in Wayne will be brought home to Winthrop Grade School.

Winthrop Public Schools has sent students with autism to the Wayne Regional Autism Program for the past three years. Seven Winthrop students are there now, ranging from first to third grades.

The district recently hired three education technicians to work with three students, who will move back to Winthrop next month. The other four will make the transition later this spring or in September.

Gary Rosenthal, superintendent of Alternative Organizational Structure 97, which serves Winthrop and Fayette, said the move will benefit the students, their families and Winthrop schools.

“We’ll probably start to save a little bit of money over a two-year period as we start to phase those kids in,” Rosenthal said. “But the good news is, at least for the parents, those kids will be coming home. They’ll be right here with their peers in the local grade school.”

Winthrop Special Services Director Sue Hunt said the students will be with mainstream students during parts of the day, such as breakfast, recess, art and music. They have similar interaction with the students of Wayne Elementary School, but that doesn’t provide them with a peer group back home.

Winthrop special education staff are reviewing the individualized education plans of each student with autism to determine how best to make the transition and what services to offer based on student needs. All of the students require one-on-one assistance from an education technician, Hunt said.

The cost of hiring extra staff will be offset by ending about $300,000 in annual tuition payments to Readfield-based Regional School Unit 38, which operates the Wayne program. Rosenthal said Winthrop may need to buy some materials or make minor facilities upgrades, but they will save the cost of transporting the students to Wayne.

Winthrop’s students first began attending the Wayne program because of a lack of space at Winthrop Grade School. But the district has since reopened the grade school’s second floor, making room for the students with autism in four classrooms on the first floor.

The Wayne Regional Autism Program started with three students in 2009, following the investment of federal stimulus money into developing the program and training staff.

RSU 38 Special Education Director Ryan Meserve said it offers a high-quality program and a small, inclusive environment with mainstream students. Small school districts may not have enough students with autism to make it practical to educate the students themselves, and previously the closest options for high-need students were as far away as Auburn or Bath.

The tuition charged by RSU 38 varies based on each student’s needs. Meserve said it typically is between $26,000 and $32,000 a year. The average operating cost per student in Maine for the 2010-2011 year was $9,629.

The Wayne Regional Autism Program has 11 students, but Meserve said the loss of seven students would not threaten its viability because there is always a waiting list.

“There will always be a need for a program like this, given the highly individualized need of a lot of students that are out there,” he said.

Hunt said the Winthrop students have thrived in Wayne, and her staff is working hard to ensure parents their children will be just as safe and successful at home.

“This has got nothing to do with what they’re doing or how they’re doing it,” she said. “The whole purpose is to bring these kids back into their community.”

Susan McMillan — 621-5645
smcmillan@mainetoday.com