The Emerge School for Autism in Baton Rouge, which has lacked a permanent home since it opened in August 2018, is months away from moving into a new $2 million facility.

The one-story, 7,130-square-foot building is arising on Innovation Park Drive near Gardere, next door to the almost four times larger Emerge Center, which founded the school.

While construction continues, the young charter school and its 32 kindergartners and first-graders are leasing a handful of classrooms five miles away in the former Polk Elementary, north of LSU, recently renamed the Eva Legard Learning Center.

They moved in last summer and have been sharing space with administrators with the East Baton Rouge Parish school system. The plan is to move out this coming summer once construction concludes, likely in May. Soon after, Polk will have new tenants: students and faculty from nearby University Terrace Elementary, which is being torn down and rebuilt.

The Emerge School works with children on the autism spectrum with the goal of getting them ready for traditional school. The short-term move to Polk, while not ideal, has been an early taste of what a more traditional school is like.

“Things that are new and not their pattern can be really challenging and overwhelming and frustrating,” Leigh Bozard, the school's principal, said. “So we were able to provide a big change for them with all of our therapeutic support there.”

Emerge's under-construction campus has a mix of traditional and nontraditional elements. In addition to six classrooms, there are at least two spaces for therapists to work. The rooms will have observation windows where adults can look in but the children can’t see who’s observing them.

It’s being built for about 48 students in grades kindergarten to five. The school won't reach fifth grade, though, until fall 2023.

The original charter application, approved by the parish School Board in May 2017, called for a much bigger school with 144 students — Louisiana charter school law allows the school to grow even bigger, to 172 students. Charter schools are public schools run privately via charters, or contracts.

“Initially we did think about having a bigger building," Bozard said. "We went with a more conservative approach.”

There is room in the rear of the property to expand in the future.

Demand has been high. Bozard said about 80 children are on the waiting list for next year.

“I would love to accept all the children and just open it up to everybody,” she said. "That would compromise the integrity of the program we have here.”

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 68 children is diagnosed with autism or related disorders by the time they are eight years old. That’s far more than the CDC's 2000 estimate of 1 in 150 children. Much of the increase can be explained by greater awareness of the developmental disorder and a broadened definition for an autism diagnosis.

Boys are 4.5 times more likely to develop autism than girls.

Extrapolating from CDC data, Emerge has estimated that between 170 and 260 children are born with autism each year in Baton Rouge.

The school has taken longer to build than expected. Early on, school leaders talked about building the new school at the same time or soon after its 2018 opening.

“We wanted to make sure we build it the right way, have everything we want in it and not try to race and finish it in time,” Bozard said.

Last July, Emerge agreed to lease Polk for $2,500 a month with the idea of being there through December. But when construction got off to a late start, Emerge exercised its option to renew the lease at Polk six more months.

School system policy does not require land leases like the one at Polk to get School Board approval. Some land leases are submitted to the board anyway, but this one was not. The document, however, indicated the opposite, that the board had approved it.

Board watcher James Finney uncovered the lease via a public records request and raised concerns. That prompted the board on Jan. 16 to belatedly approve the lease. Gwynn Shamlin, general counsel for the school system, accepted the blame saying he'd used boilerplate language from an old lease that he failed to check carefully enough before the document was signed.

The new Emerge School facility is being built by the school’s parent organization The Emerge Center and, once complete, will be leased back to the school. The Emerge Center was formerly the Baton Rouge Speech and Hearing Foundation.

Coleman Partners Architects is the designer, and Faulk and Meek is serving as general contractor. The Baton Rouge-based firms served in the same roles during the construction of the $8 million Emerge Center building next door, which opened in 2014.

The Emerge Center is fundraising to pay for the building and has almost $200,000 yet to raise. The center is also raising money separately to build a playground.

“I do not want the kids to start without their own playground,” said Deanna Whittle, chief executive officer of The Emerge Center.

The children will tackle the new playground with the help of occupational therapists and adaptive P.E. teachers. 

“We want the playground to be as typical as possible so they have the experience of playing on a typical playground,” said Bozard.

As it tries to figure out how to get its students ready for traditional school, Emerge takes its children, when they are ready, to an elementary school for a daylong, structured visit to see how it goes and then report back. Emerge also compares notes with a handful of similar schools around the country.

Bozard said the challenge has been less the children than the parents. Emerge has small class sizes of seven to nine children with three to six adults in the classroom with them. Elementary schools can often have 25-plus children and one teacher.

“It can be scary for the parents,” Bozard said. “They know they drop their kid off here and their child is safe.”

Whittle said that parents worry that the new school will overreact if their child has a tantrum.

Bozard said she loves to see the progress the children make. For instance, one girl at the school used to only eat meals at home with the lights out. Now, she’ll readily hit the food court at the mall with her mom.

“The thing we do don’t just affect the children,” she said, “they affect the families and the lives of the families.”

Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.