Historic exceptional students center opens in Hillsborough County

Hillsborough County Public Schools celebrated the official opening of the new Dorothy Thomas Exceptional Center on Tuesday, which is tailored to meet the needs of students with disabilities and specialized behavioral issues.

District leaders decided to modernize the school, which first opened in 1974 and is a K-12 school, to better serve the student population. 

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The design is the first of its kind in the state and is now a model for future Exceptional Student Centers in the district and across Florida.  

"Students with disabilities sometimes get the leftovers, for lack of a better term, and to see that, finally students are able to reap the same benefits as their non-disabled peers and have a very beautiful, brand-new school, and to be able to have just things that their non-disabled peers have in their neighborhood schools, it's just, it's tremendous growth," said Principal Kelly Simmons.

Students have been learning in the new building since school began in August. According to the district, the goal of the new design was to provide a space that meets the needs of students who learn best in a supportive environment, ‘free of auditory and visual distractions.’ 

Simmons said the building's design is aimed at creating a comfortable learning experience for kids. 

It includes a classroom, walls, and a garden designed for children with sensory issues. There's also a student service suite for students who need to work through a difficult time.

Some students, however, need more than that, Simmons said.

"They're here also because of some of the trauma that they've experienced and then some of the students that are in the foster care," Simmons said. "Maybe things are tough at home and just the Maslow's hierarchy of needs aren't being met. So sometimes when a student comes [to school], the first thing they need is a shower, and we allow them to take a shower here, we want them to take a hot shower. We give them clean clothes. We give them food to eat."

Superintendent Van Ayres said the campus was entirely funded through the education sales tax referendum that passed in 2018. 

"We asked our taxpayers to go out and assist us for projects such as this," Ayres said. "This is an example of a project that we did not have the funds to be able to go out and do."

There are currently about 50 students in the Exceptional Student Education (ESE) program enrolled at the school.