Crystal Academy: A Mother’s Mission to Help

Crystal Academy Grows from its Founder’s Compassion

At a January meeting in City Hall, city commissioners listened to an impassioned plea from Jennifer Ward Sando, a member of the city’s School Community Relations Committee. A mother of three autistic children, she described how she could not send her kids to nearby Coral Gables Preparatory Academy but had to drive them to public schools outside the city. She described her anguish every time she drove past the neighborhood school knowing “that my children could not go there…” 

Sando’s appeal, and that of the city’s Advisory Board on Disability Affairs, led to a unanimous commission vote to urge county school officials to provide education for young children in The Gables with autism. Currently, there are no public schools in the city that provide instruction for elementary or middle school students “on the spectrum.” An indignant Commissioner Mike Mena noted that “for me it’s unacceptable, with the tax base and the amount of dollars our residents pay toward that [county school] system.” 

That same lack of public facilities confronted Maria Palacio-Pike back in 2009, after her son was diagnosed with autism. Her response was extraordinary: using funds from her family, she founded a private school for autistic kids. Today the Crystal Academy she launched has 42 autistic students. They study on the grounds of the St. James Evangelical Lutheran Church, across the street from the historic Coral Gables Woman’s Club. 

Maria Palacio-Pike ,Co-Founder of the Crystal Academy
Maria Palacio-Pike,Co-Founder of the Crystal Academy

Here, in the protected leafy grounds and small classrooms of the church, a dedicated staff of 45 employees provides specifically tailored – and loving – instruction to children with all degrees of the neurological disorder that makes it hard to communicate or socially interact. Some students are so non-verbal that they can communicate only using special keyboards; others use music and games to interact, all with the goal of successfully joining the outside world. 

“We were always here at the church, and we’ve had a great relationship with them,” says Palacio. “We started in a very small area, about 500 square feet. Now we occupy everything but the sanctuary and the Garden of the Lord,” a walled enclosure with a pond and a stone statue of Jesus. 

The need for special schools such as Crystal is poignant and growing. When the academy first opened, one in every 150 children was diagnosed autistic; today the figure is closer to one in 44. Palacio estimates there are 700 families in The Gables with autistic children, “and the only way for these children to get better is with early intervention – and continuous intervention.” 

Crystal Academy Students

What has also changed since the academy was founded was state legislation that now requires insurance companies to recognize autism as a medical disorder, though sufficient coverage is not guaranteed; the administration staff at Crystal works long hours to help parents find insurance coverage for fees of up to $36,000 per school year.

The next challenge for Palacio and the Academy will be transitioning to new facilities. The city has given initial approval for developer Sergio Pino to level the old church and its bell tower, and in-fill the entire 1.5-acre block with a 10-story apartment building of about 200 units. The approval is based partly on Pino agreeing to build a 5,000-square-foot school for Crystal Academy, with 3,500-square-feet of green space, provided rent free for 99 years. 

With ground-breaking slated for 2023, Palacio-Pike must find another location for the school while construction takes place. She is hoping another church in The Gables might be able to help. She also hopes that Pino will provide one of the apartments for a reasonable rent, so that her students can use it as a transitional living place, like a university dorm room, “so they can learn the living skills” they need to become part of the larger world.