Until a few months ago, Kerry Brown was a worried mother. Her son, diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), would make himself throw up every morning to stay home from school. On the days when he went to school, the 14-year-old boy would often return home with stories of being bullied and punished.
Not anymore. Now in his first year at the Academy of Whole Learning, Brown's son has not just become more socially integrated with the rest of the students in eighth grade, but he also seeks more friendships and plays sports.
"Everything has turned around," Brown said Tuesday at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the school in Minnetonka. The private K-12 school moved from St. Louis Park to the new building on Williston Road near Minnetonka City Hall in July, for want of space.
"He felt like an outcast there," Brown, an advertising professional, said of her son's experience at his old school. "He was punished for banging the table and humming. But here, he has improved socially and academically with a feeling that he is not the only one. Teachers are the secret sauce here."
Brown is one of several parents who have enrolled their children at the academy, one of a small but growing number of Minnesota schools in recent years specifically designed for students with ASD or related learning differences.
From six students in 2004, when it was set up, to 60 students, the school has come a long way in enrolling students with special needs from places as far away as Wisconsin. It expects to enroll 66 students next year in the new building, which can accommodate 100. The school's website lists annual tuition for 2018-19 at $26,550.
"The similarity in these kids is that they learn differently from their traditional counterparts," said Wyayn Rasmussen, head of the school. "We try to provide each student with an individually planned education by expertly trained staff to make sure they succeed as normal adults after high school."
"Half of the students that pass high school get jobs," she said. "We cater to kids individually."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 in 68 children in the U.S. has autism, and the rate is higher in Minnesota. In Minneapolis alone, one in 48 children has been diagnosed with ASD, the CDC says.
What makes the Academy of Whole Learning stand out are the subtleties in its learning methods. Each classroom of eight students is supervised by two teachers — licensed to teach both special education and traditional classes. The students are not taught by grade levels but are instead grouped by ability.
The dimly lit classrooms are equipped with sensory corners where students in need of a break can go and play with things like a sensory swing or a fidget spinner.
"In case there is an issue with a child in the class we attend the child inside the classroom in presence of a teacher," said Katie Thormodsgaard, a behavior specialist at the school. Most students enrolled at the school had been previously studying in traditional schools.
The curriculum is based on Common Core State Standards but is taught at their individual instructional level. The school's outpatient clinic, which offers psychotherapy, behavior intervention, and physical and speech therapies, will soon be available to children and families in the community.
Cindy Kerr's son, Joey, diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, would be treated as the 'odd one out' at his previous school in St. Paul before he moved here two years ago. Now, in third grade at Academy of Whole Learning Joey, 9, looks forward to attending the birthday parties of his classmates, some of whom may be 10 years older.
"Children like him would prefer to stay with those with similar needs," Kerr said, recalling when Joey wanted to spend his winter break with the children at his present school.
The school depends on an annual fundraising event. The next one, Minds of all Kinds Benefits Breakfast, is May 10 at the Edina Country Club.
"The society needs to come out and support these kids," Rasmussen said.