Pleasanton Weekly

Cover Story - October 21, 2011

'We have a home!' rejoices School of Imagination

Move No. 8: Education center cuts ribbon on new state-of-the-art facility

by Dolores Fox Ciardelli

The School of Imagination opened its new state-of-the-art campus in Dublin last Friday with children, music, speeches, tears of gratitude and a tour of the large, airy facility.

"It's an absolute miracle that the community came together to provide this incredible gift for our children and families," said Charlene Sigman, an educator and speech-language pathologist who founded the school's precursor, Happy Talkers, with her husband Mitch.

In 2001, they opened their Pleasanton home for daycare and therapy for children with speech delays, autism and other developmental needs, beginning with four children in their living room. The endeavor grew until, still in their personal home, Happy Talkers served more than 120 children each week. It came to be recognized as a much-need community resource and evolved into the School of Imagination.

For a decade the Sigmans and their team of specialists and educators have moved from place to place -- for a total of eight times. Most recently the school was held at Crosswinds Church, with the teachers packing up their classrooms each Friday afternoon and reassembling them Monday morning.

But last week they finally settled into their new 12,000-square-foot permanent facility, which was custom-built by Discovery Homes at 9801 Dublin Blvd. at its Schaefer Ranch development.

"We finally have a permanent home. It's a dream come true," Charlene Sigman said at the ribbon cutting.

KTVU/Channel 2 Sports Director Mark Ibanez, whose child has attended the School of Imagination, was emcee.

"It's a great day for me," Ibanez said. "Not many times do we get to celebrate the fruition of a miracle."

He noted that he'd recently heard that 10 years ago we had Johnny Cash, Steve Jobs and Bob Hope -- today we have no cash, no jobs and no hope.

"We always have to have hope," he added. "Hope leading to a dream leading to this. Hope is alive and well in the Dublin-Pleasanton Valley."

Children and staff arrived in a colorfully decorated bus, courtesy of Black Tie Transportation, to join in the celebration because, as Ibanez said, "How can you dedicate a school without children?"

After they gathered around the flag pole, members of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6298 and American Legion Post 237 raised first the American flag, then the flag of Dublin, then -- for the first time ever -- the flag of the School of Imagination.

At the dedication, both Charlene and Mitch Sigman thanked Discovery Homes, which donated the land and the building.

"Many times we could have thrown in the towel -- but we couldn't because of the children," Charlene said. "Thank you for making this school a reality."

"The Seeno family has no idea what a gift they've given us," Mitch added.

They also thanked the city of Dublin for its support, including former Mayor Janet Lockhart and current Mayor Tim Sbranti.

"Mitch and Charlene were so clear about their vision and what they wanted to see," Lockhart told the crowd. "They brought a dream to all of us."

Sbranti called the school a perfect example of a public-private partnership and said people across the state and even the country have heard of the School of Imagination.

"People are blown away," he said. "It's one of the most unique facilities in the United States."

He also, as a teacher, expressed amazement that the staff has been disassembling its classrooms each weekend.

"I have trouble once a year, in June and August," he commented.

Once the ribbon across the school's entrance was cut, the Sigmans remained at the entry, shaking hands and hugging supporters as they poured in to see the large open classrooms and the colorful playground.

"As a parent of a 7-year-old with autism, I can tell you firsthand that developmental and educational opportunities of this caliber simply don't exist," Ibanez said.

The School of Imagination has an "integrated inclusion model," which means that it pairs typically developing children and children with developmental disabilities.

"In this environment, children don't learn prejudices and discrimination because of a person's differences," Charlene Sigman said. "They learn compassion, patience and understanding. It's the way the world is supposed to be."

The School of Imagination earned the Jefferson Award for Public Service in 2006 (San Francisco Chronicle and CBS5 television) and is considered a national role model for inclusion programs. Its full inclusion preschool and kindergarten programs are cutting edge and provide small, customized classes and low student-to-teacher ratios.

The school also provides developmental and educational programs as well as free screening and outreach services for children with developmental disabilities such as autism. It now reaches more than 300 children weekly, attracting students from as far as Sacramento, Napa and San Jose. Ten children are diagnosed with autism every day just in California, according to The Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

"If there was a School of Imagination in every community across America, just think how the lives of children with special needs would be enriched," Ibanez noted.

For more information on the school or to reach the Parent Support Network, call (877) KIDS-TLC (543-7852) or visit www.soi4kids.org.

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