Tamara Phillips never dreamed she’d start a school one day, but when she saw her 14-year-old autistic daughter, Ari, disinterested in school and lacking opportunities for social interaction, she was inspired to tackle an education bureaucracy that wasn’t offering solutions fast enough.
“There is this ‘illusion of inclusion’ in many public schools, where children with autism may be sitting in the back of a classroom, but there really isn’t any learning of substance going on,” Phillips says. “And the social aspect just is not there.”
Showing both the power of committed parents and an unbridled passion for providing a better education for children, the launch of the soon-to-open Lionsgate Academy in Minneapolis provides a narrative of choice, inspiration, and intense planning.
As a social work graduate student, Phillips sees many families who have children diagnosed with autism. She estimates 95 percent of the children she’s helped so far have experienced anxiety and depression as a result of bad experiences in traditional public schools.
So Phillips teamed with another parent, Bernadette Groh, to begin the process of starting a charter school specifically for autistic students in her hometown of Minneapolis.
The school–Lionsgate Academy–is slated to enroll upwards of 100 students diagnosed with autism in grades 6-12 this fall.
“These two families were not satisfied with the programs their children were receiving in the public schools. They wanted a program with more parental involvement, and they started to do research,” explained Leslie Laub, a psychologist and retired principal and director of education who serves on Lionsgate Academy’s board of directors.
For Phillips and her group of parents, the process of starting a school wasn’t–and still isn’t–the easiest of challenges.
After two years of planning, writing a 250-page charter grant application, and consulting with charter school experts, Lionsgate board members are now searching for school locations, narrowing the field of candidates for the school director position, and searching for qualified teachers to recruit.
The idea of a school for children living with autism–defined as those with brain development disorders that impair communication and social interaction–has inspired hundreds of parents who, like Phillips, are dissatisfied with the special-education programs provided in public schools. To date, more than 700 parents have contacted Phillips about the school, and she is frequently asked how parents can follow in her footsteps and start schools of their own.
Phillips offers them a dose of optimism and caution, stressing the importance of strong planning and consulting with experts.
“We knew that we were not educators,” Phillips said. “So we aligned ourselves with educators and other professionals who know how to create a school. We met with people who had started charter schools before, we visited private schools throughout the country, and we met with a charter school consultant.”
Laub says Lionsgate Academy will provide a differentiated education focused on year-round schooling, longer breaks, college and life preparation, and opportunities for social interaction. The school has teamed with the University of Minnesota to offer specialized services.
“We are going to focus on social skills in every single class, and we will use community resources so that children learn social transition skills,” Laub said.
Both women say the biggest challenge facing Lionsgate is fundraising–the same one that faces most charter schools, no matter the population they serve. The school’s founders hope to raise $1.5 million over the next three years.
Regardless of whether they meet that exact goal, however, Phillips vows the school will open, and she is thankful that parents in Minneapolis and across the country have provided a strong support network to work for Lionsgate’s success.
“I think that when you are looking at parents of kids with autism, you see a totally dedicated group of people who will go to the ends of the Earth to get the best learning environment for their kids,” Phillips said.
According to the Center for Education Reform, a charter school advocacy group based in Bethesda, Maryland, Lionsgate Academy will be among 154 other charter schools in Minnesota. The state passed the nation’s first charter school law in 1991, and charter schools in Minnesota serve more than 23,000 students.
The opening of Lionsgate–and the demand among parents for specialized educational opportunities–follows a trend in which parents of children with special needs are demanding more educational options for their children, according to the nonprofit Alliance for School Choice, a national advocacy group based in Washington, DC that promotes school vouchers and scholarship tax credit programs.
According to the alliance, five states offer private school choice programs for students with special needs. More than 21,410 students are currently participating in those programs–a 10 percent increase over the 2006-07 school year.
Though school choice is a controversial topic nationwide, Phillips says she hasn’t experienced any backlash over Lionsgate’s opening.
“If anyone has a problem with what we’re doing, they haven’t told me,” Phillips said. “And it wouldn’t bother me if they did, because we’d continue.”
Andrew Campanella ([email protected]) is director of communications and marketing at the Alliance for School Choice in Washington, DC.