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You can see the ache in Tamara Phillips' eyes.
As her autistic daughter, now 14, has grown, so too has the loneliness: her daughter's loneliness in school, but also the parents' loneliness -- because having an autistic child can seem a solitary climb up a very long hill. "There's a lot of pain," Phillips said.
Tired of it feeling alone and weary of years of pushing public schools to better educate their kids, a group of parents of autistic children is starting a charter school specifically for older students with the disorder. When Lionsgate Academy opens, scheduled for the fall of 2008, it will be the only public school in Minnesota -- and one of only a handful in the country -- designed for children with autism-spectrum disorders.
Founders hope to open the school in the western suburbs and hire teachers trained for the needs of their children.
It would be a place for parents to commune with other parents and a place for researchers to learn the best ways to help children learn to build meaningful lives.
"There are a lot of desperate people out there," said Bernadette Waisbren, who has a 14-year-old son with autism and was Phillips' partner in sparking the idea for the school.
Parents yearn for their children to gain the skills they need to go to college, to get a job. "We just want them to reach their potential," Waisbren said. "But we just didn't see it happening."
Students with unique needs
According to the Autism Society of Minnesota, autism is a complex disability that is present from birth or very early in development. It affects social interaction, the ability to communicate ideas and feelings, and the ability to establish relationships. Autism is estimated to occur in as many as one in 166 people and is four times more common in boys than in girls.
Frustrated with what they termed the "illusion of inclusion" in traditional schools, the Lionsgate parents decided to start a charter public school rather than a private school. As a charter school, Lionsgate will receive basic per-pupil funding from the state. "We want to make this available to everybody," said Steven Waisbren, Bernadette's husband and chairman of the Lionsgate school board.
Lionsgate will enroll children in sixth through 10th grades, eventually serving students up to age 21. The school is trying to find a site and to raise at least $1.5 million for equipment and programming. It has enlisted the support of the Autism Society of Minnesota, the University of St. Thomas and the Autism Spectrum Disorders Clinic at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Michael Reiff, director of the clinic, joined the Lionsgate board.
Reiff said the clinic will serve as a resource for the school, and the school will act as a laboratory of sorts for training graduate students and pediatric doctors and gathering data.
"I am very excited about it," Reiff said. "Because I think we have things to give. And I also think we have things to learn and receive from this."
The Adler Graduate School of Richfield, a school that offers classes for psychotherapists and counselors, is Lionsgate's sponsor. Dennis Rislove, a former superintendent of schools in Alexandria, is president of Adler. Lionsgate is needed, he said.
"It's difficult to have a program that focuses on autism in the public schools," he said. "A lot of times, these students get placed in a special education room, a multiple disability room, with kids that have a lot of other disabilities. These children need calm and quiet, not a lot of distraction or stimulation."
Leslie Laub, an educational consultant and longtime teacher and supervisor of special education, is also part of the Lionsgate effort. She said limited resources make it hard for public schools to serve autistic students in junior high and high school.
"And as these kids get older, time is running out," Laub said. "The parents who are calling me are desperate. They are saying, 'My child is mainstreamed, but he or she is very unhappy. They don't have any friends.'"
In addition to regular public school funding, Laub said, Lionsgate will receive special education funds from students' home school districts. And the school will receive other state and federal special education funds.
Can it work?
Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, said the Lionsgate effort fits with Minnesota's long history of parents working to provide better school choices for their children.
From Montessori schools in the suburbs to inner-city schools that focus on Hmong or Somali language and culture, charter schools have been a way for parents to meet their needs. Lionsgate's success could prod traditional schools to be even more responsive to families of children with autism, Nathan said.
Experts acknowledge many children with autism do fine in traditional public schools. They need to. An estimated 4,000 kids with autism live in the Twin Cities area; Lionsgate will enroll only about 130.
Laura Moore is an autism specialist with Intermediate School District 287, which provides special education services to children in the west metro area. Moore said that she and everyone she works with in the public schools "comes with the attitude that this is going to be a good day, that I'm going to be successful." Success in an inclusion model, she said, "varies from student to student."
Laura Keller-Gautsch, special education director for Intermediate District 287, said there should be many options for children with autism.
"Education is market-driven," she said. "If you are looking for what would be considered a fairly restrictive place, where all the kids are autistic, that might serve the needs of a specific family. But another might not want that."
Steven Waisbren said Lionsgate surveyed 500 Minnesota families with children with autism, and many thirst for what Lionsgate offers. "This is an environment where kids with autism are understood and will thrive," he said.
James Walsh • 651-298-1541