“This school is special! Just like us!,” shouted 12-year-old Zack Poerio, leaning into the microphone before about 300 people gathered Monday for the opening of the Els Center of Excellence for autistic children.
The $35 million beige-and-white school on Limestone Creek Road has 20 classrooms for about 115 students between ages 3 and 14. There is also a program for up to 15 students under 3 who have been diagnosed or are at risk of having autism.
An upper school, also with 20 classrooms, is planned next year for 150 more students up to 22 years old. The upper school will have a temporary housing area for graduating students. They will learn about finding employment, shopping, transportation and other day-to-day skills.
“Students will keep learning life skills. They can have vocational training. They will not stop learning after they graduate,” said Manny Gonzalez-Abreu, principal of the school just outside of Jupiter.
A gymnasium, driving range, pitch/putt area and athletic field are mapped out on the 26-acre site for the charter school. Enrollment is free and open to all children in Palm Beach County.
Zack and his younger brother, Nick, 8, both attend the Els Center. The biggest advantage for students and their families is staying in the same building for the students’ entire academic career, said their parents, Molly and Jim.
“Change is difficult for autistic children. As a parent, you can feel alone with autistic children. I don’t feel that here,” said Molly Poerio.
The school is being built with private money raised through the Els for Autism Foundation, which also has branches in Canada, South Africa and the United Kingdom. The foundation was established by Liezl and PGA golfer Ernie Els, who are both from South Africa. Their 13-year-old son, Ben, has autism.
“This school will have an impact not just in the country but around the world. This school will show the students how far they can go in life,” Liezl Els said.
Ernie Els told the crowd he expects the school to spark more such facilities around the globe.
“Hopefully, this school will be the norm for future ones,” he said.
Staff writer Brian Biggane contributed to this story.
Have a Jupiter issue you’d like to see The Post tackle, or a story idea? Contact Bill DiPaolo at BDiPaolo@pbpost.com.