Rico Pallotta, PhD began this organization with a search for values. He wanted to build a program based on a solid foundation of beliefs that would withstand the test of time and the coming and going of educational and psychological fads. Dr. Pallotta wanted a belief system based on fundamental truths. He found that when he discovered Re-EDucation (Re-ED) developed by Nicholas Hobbs, Ph.D. and his colleagues at Peabody College in Nashville, Tennessee.
In April of 1970, Dr. Pallotta attended a conference in Chicago. The presenters were Robert Slagle and Charles McDonald, two of Nick Hobbs’ colleagues. Their message of how to reach troubled kids inspired Rico Pallotta. It also inspired another man, M. Lee Maxwell, who at the time was finishing his doctorate. Both men were profoundly moved and invigorated by the Re-ED principles. Independently, each man had expressed these feelings to a mutual friend, Esther Gray, who insisted that the two men meet each other.
By September of that same year, Dr. Pallotta had hired Dr. Maxwell to work with him at the Cuyahoga East Special Education Service Center.
A year later, in the fall of 1971, Positive Education Program (PEP) was born. Its first home was in Shaker Heights in the former Moreland Elementary School. PEP started as a training and consultation organization working with teachers and principals, school psychologists and families on issues related to behavior and learning problems.
In 1975, PEP opened West Bridge, its first Day Treatment Center. Just months later, Hopewell (formerly known as Parmadale) opened its doors. The Educational Service Center of Cuyahoga County (formerly known as The Cuyahoga County Board of Education) became PEP’s fiscal agent.
1975 was a very important year in PEP’s history. Changes in national education law forever altered the demand for PEP’s services. Public Law 94-142 was signed into law by President Gerald Ford. This law guaranteed a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) for all children, regardless of disability.
In the fall of 1974, PEP staff visited several Re-ED programs in Tennessee. One of those was the Regional Intervention Program (RIP). Dr. Pallotta was so inspired by what he saw that the planning for PEP’s Early Childhood Centers (ECC) was quickly underway to replicate the RIP model. By November of 1976, PEP had opened its first Early Childhood Center. Response to this new service was so great that by 1978 PEP opened its second Early Childhood Center on the west side of town.
By the end of 1978, PEP had opened three more Day Treatment Centers: Eastwood in 1976; Phoenix Place in 1977; and West Shore in 1978. Greenview Day Treatment Center opened its doors in 1984. Over time, Phoenix Place transitioned to specializing in the service of young people with the dual diagnoses of severe emotional disturbance (SED) and cognitive disabilities.
The closing of children’s psychiatric hospitals created a critical need for residential psychiatric services. PEP responded to this need by opening its first Group Home in 1983, with support from the Ohio Department of Mental Health. In 1991, PEP opened its second Group Home to serve adolescent males who had serious emotional disturbances combined with significant developmental delays. In 2007, because of funding changes, PEP discontinued the operation of these group homes.
By 1987, it became apparent to PEP that there were a growing number of children being identified with both SED and autism or multiple disabilities. In that year, PEP opened its first classroom designed to meet the special needs of this group of children. By 1998, this service grew to become its own center, which today is known as PEP Prentiss Autism Center (formerly known as Harbor and The Center for Special Needs).
In 1989, with support from the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation, the Ohio Department of Mental Health and the Cuyahoga County Community Mental Health Board, Connections was born. Connections is a unique inter-systems community support program designed to meet the needs of children in multiple systems of care who are at imminent risk of removal from their home and the community.
In the late 1990’s, Cuyahoga County leaders started to place increasing importance on the value of early childhood interventions. Once again, PEP was asked to take a leadership role in starting a new community initiative. In January of 1997, Day Care Plus – a program designed to maintain young children with challenging behaviors in their existing child care settings – was established as a collaborative effort of the Cuyahoga County Community Mental Health Board, Starting Point for Child Care and Early Education and Positive Education Program.
Dr. Pallotta led Positive Education Program for 27 years with remarkable compassion and vision. In January of 1998, Dr. Pallotta, PEP’s beloved founder, died after a short battle with pancreatic cancer. Dr. Frank Fecser, then a 20-year veteran of PEP, became PEP’s second chief executive.
Under Dr. Fecser’s leadership, PEP continued to grow and change. In 1998, PEP became a Help Me Grow provider. PEP’s Help Me Grow program used home visitors to provide support and services to promote the well-being of children ages 0-3. In 2009, as a result of State funding cuts, PEP was no longer able to serve as a Help Me Grow provider.
In 1999, PEP Assist was created to once again provide training and consultation services to schools in Ohio and across state lines. PEP Assist also operates two week-long training experiences each year, the Summer Institute and Life Space Crisis Intervention.
In 2000, PEP opened its eighth day treatment center. This center – Midtown Center for Youth in Transition – is specifically designed to help adolescents transition to successful adulthood. In 2003, PEP opened Phoenix Point, expanding its service to dually-diagnosed youth. Responding to growing demand from Lorain County, PEP opened Willow Creek (located in Grafton), marking PEP’s first program to operate outside of Cuyahoga County. In 2010, Phoenix Point and Phoenix Place, both serving children with severe cognitive delays, consolidated into one center under the name PEP Phoenix.
In 2003, Cuyahoga County was awarded a multi-million dollar federal grant to develop a more efficient and family-friendly system to provide supports to children who are seriously emotionally disturbed and their families. This system of care, named Tapestry, was built on the successful work of PEP Connections and Family-to-Family, a large Cuyahoga County foster care initiative, which was funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. PEP was the first mental health agency to pilot Tapestry. In 2010, the PEP Tapestry program merged with PEP Connections and maintained the name PEP Connections.
In 2008 PEP launched its first capital campaign in its then storied history. The campaign, Creating a Spectrum of Hope, raised money and created collaborative partnerships to support a new autism center to house PEP’s program for children with autism and other complex developmental disorders (formerly PEP Harbor). To recognize the generous gift of the Elisabeth Severance Prentiss Foundation to this project, the new building was named PEP Prentiss Autism Center and opened in August 2010.
Over time more children and youth served by PEP have experienced trauma, adverse life experiences, or live with chronic toxic stress. In order to best serve these children and their families, in 2010 PEP embarked on a three-year initiative to adopt and implement The Sanctuary Model. This approach informs our understanding of the effects of trauma and our trauma-informed practice. It offers alternative therapeutic approaches to help children heal from the devastating effects of trauma. The principles and practices of Sanctuary smoothly integrate with Re-ED, the philosophy on which PEP was founded.
In 2011 PEP closed its two Early Childhood Centers and ceased providing center-based services. Over the years school districts had developed their own preschool programs, thus diminishing the demand for PEP’s center-based services. PEP continues to embrace its role as a leader in the early childhood community. In 2012 PEP introduced Early Childhood Plus, its collection of early childhood services that provides consultation, training and support to the professionals who serve and the adults who care for young children with special needs.
As PEP grew in size, it has also grown in its reputation. Locally and nationally, PEP has been recognized for its excellent programming. In 1996, the U.S. Department of Education identified PEP’s Day Treatment Centers as one of six model special education programs in the country. In 2000, the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice recognized PEP for being an example of a model program providing intensive interventions to troubled students. In 2003, Positive Education Program won the Woodruff Prize, a local honor bestowed upon an agency demonstrating excellence in mental health care. In 2007, PEP Day Treatment services were highlighted by the American Institutes for Research as one of three effective alternative education programs in the United States.
Throughout these many years, as new programs have started and others have expanded, one thing has always remained constant – PEP’s commitment to the values of Re-EDucation. This asset-based, wholly-embracing and compassionate approach to working with troubled and troubling children and their families is as meaningful today as it was when PEP first opened its doors in 1971.