Lionsgate Academy was started by Bernadette Groh R.N, MS PHN and Tamara Phillips M.A. who hatched the idea that the public schools could do a better job of educating their teenage children living with autism. To reach their aims they initially met with various experts in the field of autism education, health, transition, employment, and research. Some of these experts thought these two women were nuts. This was considered way too big of a task. Nonetheless, they persisted in attracting enough interested members of the community to hold the first meeting in July of 2006.
At that meeting Steven Waisbren M.D., Ph.D., a father of a teen with autism and a surgeon in the community, was appointed chair. Others attending included a retired school principal and director of special education, a coordinator of special education to charter schools, special education teachers, parents of children with autism, as well as an expert in starting up charter schools. Operating principals of the school were established: start small, initially focus on children that are “high functioning”, rely on experts in the field using research based or best practice educational techniques, and maintain pristine finances.
From there, the founding board developed the mission and vision statements. These statements were not just words, but were chosen to truly reflect the goals and vision for the school. The developers wanted to look at the big picture. The plan was not just to get the students from 7th grade to 8th grade, but focus where they will be at age 21, 25 and 40. Their goals were for the graduates of the school to go on to further education or find a good job, live independently and maintain meaningful relationships with others. This was to be accomplished by developing a supportive environment between the families, school and the larger community to decrease some of the isolation of these families. Yes, the school was a special school where the children may be segregated from their typical peers for much of the day. Still, the developers knew first hand the “delusion of inclusion” that has been maintained in traditional public school settings. They also recognized the critical importance to get these children out into the communities for internships or projects so that they will get exposure to the real world and learn to live and cope in an environment where there may be loud sounds, bright colors or strong odors. Thus, the developers have emphasized the need for strong ties between the school and the community.
The developers wanted the name of the school to reflect their mission as well as be sensitive to their particular needs. They liked the concept that secondary school is just a gateway to the rest of their lives. They also wanted a strong name that also touched them on a personal level. These two parents that started this endeavor, by coincidence, each have a child with autism named Ari. In Hebrew and in Arabic Ari means courage, or lion. Thus, the name Lionsgate Academy was born.
The name and the idea of this school seemed to catch on. Others were either recruited or contacted the developers to join in. These included attorneys, advocates for children with autism, finance experts, information technologists, health care providers, and therapists who worked with children on the spectrum. Many of these same people were the parents of children with autism. Institutions and foundations also joined the cause: Autism Society of Minnesota, University of Minnesota, University of St. Thomas, Opportunity Partners, Courage Center, MacPhail School of Music, VSA Arts Minnesota, Welsch Companies and Border Foods.
Critical to the foundation of a charter school is finding a sponsor, who takes the actual responsibility for assuring that the charter school board meets its stated mission. The Adler Graduate School, whose president is a former school superintendent, was chosen because of their experience in sponsoring schools and for the mission match between the two organizations. Dennis Rislove, the president of the Adler Graduate School, has been a wonderful supporter of the mission and has even attended numerous seminars on Charter School administration to keep up to date with his responsibilities to Lionsgate Academy
While the board and partners were expanded, the 212-page application to the State of Minnesota was written. Teaching methods were based on models of a few other schools in the country with a similar focus as well as via the advice of experts in autism education. This application was completed in July 2007, one year after the initial meeting to start the school. The application reportedly received with the highest rating of the 22 submitted and the acceptance was announced in October 2007. A few months later, the Minneapolis Star Tribune heard about the school and wrote a front-page article about the efforts. This article was picked up in the national media and reprinted in such papers as the Milwaukee Sentinel, Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post. Other organization started to spread the word. It became a bit “viral” and was included in on-line support groups and Google’s “Autism Alerts”. After that publicity, the founders were inundated with requests for more information. Over 770 families living with a child with autism filled out a survey supporting the effort to build a school that may potentially help their child.
To this end, the parents of the two Ari’s spent over $25,000 of their own money to develop this free public school. They did not seek outside support until the application was approved. Furthermore, Lionsgate was prohibited by law from obtaining its own 510c3 until the school was approved by the Minnesota Department of Education. Thus, the Autism Society of Minnesota agreed to serve as the fiscal agent until Lionsgate’s tax exempt paperwork cleared. The developers of Lionsgate enjoyed this relationship with the Autism Society because of their excellent financial controls and because of the cachet of being supported by such a respected group.
Lionsgate Academy never had a major setback from the timelines developed primarily by Johana Sand, the start-up coordinator. The search for a suitable location was particularly vexing. Richard Friedrichs, a vice president for the Welsch Companies, volunteered his time and helped us find a wonderful partner to house the school. The Cornerstone Church used to be a middle school until it was purchased by the church several years ago. This 12 acre site looks and feels like a school, because that it what it was designed for. The site was particularly attractive to the developers of LGA because the church saw that working with families with disabilities is part of its mission.
As the building was being found, LGA began to hire staff and recruit families. Many things had to happen at once and were all dependent on one another: staff and families would not commit to the school until they knew where it was to be located. They had to find busing. The bus companies could not commit until they knew where the students lived and what the hours of the school would be. They did not know what the staffing needs were to be until they knew just what the needs were of the students. Everything had to fall into place at once.
The board’s first hire was Johana Sand as start up coordinator. She had been in the charter school movement for about a dozen years and helped start up over 10 schools. The second hire was Jody Van Ness, who is both an educator and mother of a young man living with autism. They went on to hire a terrific staff including regular and special ed teachers and aides, social workers, nurses and behavioralists. The founding board recognized that the school was to be only as good as the individuals it hired.
Thus, on September 2nd , 2008 Lionsgate Academy opened its doors for an initial matriculating class of 70 students. Although many more than 70 students sought admission to the school, the founding board stuck with their strategy of starting small and building upon success.
The developers of Lionsgate recognized that starting and maintaining a school is a process and a lot more work than they had envisioned. These 70 students had more diverse and extremes needs than had originally been planned. Thus, the initial 17 staff of the school doubled in number by the end of the year. Also by the end of the first year, Jody Van Ness elected to resign as executive director. Although in many aspects she enjoyed running the school, she found she found the job of running a first-year school very demanding and could not spend enough time at home with her own family.
Hence, Lionsgate went on an exhaustive search to find a replacement for Ms. Van Ness. The School Board were delighted to recruit Stan Hacker out of retirement to serve as the executive director. He had been a math teacher, athletic coach, school administrator and school board chair before coming to LGA. Since Stan’s arrival for the 2009-2010 school year the school has grown to 95 students with 135 planned for 2010-2011 academic year. Cornerstone Church, our landlord, have been extremely accommodating to our increased needs for space. The Minnesota Department of Education has been a true partner in developing this innovative school as we grow. We continue to have about 70 students on the waiting list to matriculate.
Besides overseeing the growth of LGA, Mr. Hacker has formalized the administrative structure, assured accountability for all teachers and staff, improved the process of developing and complying with the IEP’s and further enhanced the sense of community between students, parents, staff and the school board.
Nonetheless, there is still much work to be done. To that end, all of those at LGA are studying what works and what does not. They see that Lionsgate academy will evolve and will change. LGA is formally study its educational techniques and measuring its ability to meet its goals. Besides examining test scores and meeting IEP goals, the LGA staff are asking bigger questions: Are graduates of LGA getting jobs or furthering their education? Do they live independent lives? Are they ending up in jail or having unplanned pregnancies? How do these outcomes compare with traditional educational programs for similar students?
As we are finishing our second year of existence, the response from our families has been, for the most part, superlative. Parents have written countless “thank you” notes to our staff and teachers. The growth in the social skills and sense of community are apparent to all who have been a part of the process. The educators have been thrilled to be supported by their school board and families.
Of course, the next chapters in our history have yet to be written. Our goals are clear: Graduates of Lionsgate academy will, to the fullest extent possible, move on to further education or gainful employment, live independently, and have meaningful relationships with others.
We welcome you to part of this process.
Steven J. Waisbren, M.D., Ph.D.
Chair Founding Board