FOND DU LAC, Wis. — Imagine you walk into a classroom where kindergartners, second-graders and third-graders are working together. The older students guide the young as they share ideas. There is a flurry of movement as they remain active, learning in various forms — from handmade models to technology.
You approach two students at a work station who are creating an image of a farm based on what they had seen during a field trip the day before.
You introduce yourself. One of the students speaks up, tells you his name, then points to the boy next to him.
"This is my friend, Tim. He doesn't use words, but he's OK."
This is a scenario Agnesian Director of Behavioral Health Autism Services Dr. Matt Doll describes as possible at North Fond du Lac's new charter school, The Treffert Way for the Exceptional Mind.
And they're not alone. Around the country, schools like Treffert Way are turning toward new and more inclusive educational methods to not only benefit traditional students, but those of all abilities.
Longstanding partnership leads to new school
The school builds upon a partnership between two educational institutions: Agnesian Healthcare's Treffert Center and School District of North Fond du Lac.
Opened in 2016, The Treffert Center is developed off methods of world-renown autism, hyperlexia and savant expert Dr. Darold Treffert, and helps students with unique abilities.
The School District of North Fond du Lac called upon the center's — and Doll's — resources as they sought ways to support students in childcare and education, while having an inclusive environment, said now-Treffert Way speech and language pathologist Beth Dardis.
Over the years, the center and district worked on other projects together, including: evaluations; bringing Agnesian Beyond the Boundaries of Autism to classrooms for behavioral treatments; studying strengths-based learning; conducting research on how to best help a student with hyperlexia with Dr. Treffert; and creating a new reading curriculum.
All involved shared a common goal: to use their services to create a new way to learn by building upon the strengths of students.
Their answer? A new charter school for children of all abilities.
Formal meetings for Treffert Way began in 2017, and Aaron Sadoff, North Fond du Lac school district's superintendent, supported the school district and Treffert Center staff writing a grant to help the charter school take off. The group completed the writing process in fall.
As it opens for the 2019-2020 school year, Treffert Way will operate in a portion of the district's Early Learning Center and enroll 40 students in kindergarten through sixth grade.
A grade will be added each year, so students who start with the program may continue through high school, said occupational therapist Karen Bartelt, who worked within the district before starting with Treffert Way.
A nonprofit, Treffert Way operates as a school through a charter provided by the district. This allows it access to the district's resources, like extracurricular activities and staff, while also giving it the autonomy to have "a little more creativity" when it comes to education, Doll told the Fond du Lac Reporter.
An approach informed, in part, by the successes of other charter schools
Across the country, schools — particularly charter schools — have used this leniency to implement unique educational techniques.
From a handful of those, the North Fond du Lac team — which also includes special education teacher Tiffany Dolan and teacher Tim Williams — found inspiration and guidance.
When Design39Campus opened in 2014 in San Diego, it was the result of a directive given to teachers: to re-imagine education.
Typical education is "student-centered," said Design39 Principal Joe Erpelding, meaning a teacher can choose to share the information in any way they choose to get it across to students.
Bartelt said the traditional classroom setting and model is not beneficial to all students for a variety of reasons, including the pace of the classroom and the number of classmates.
As a parent to a child with autism, Treffert Way Board Vice President Liaison Laurie Develice perceived the only options with her child were akin to trying to make a round peg fit in a square hole, rather than focusing on his strengths and passions.
A shift in focus could create a sense of accomplishment and self-worth, and in turn would help students work on improving other skills, she said.
Bartelt and Dardis recognized this, too, as individualized education plans, known as IEPs, were often centered on weaknesses. Over the years, they watched "brilliant" students with learning differences graduate and become either unemployed or underemployed, not reaching the potential they could have with the use of strengths and mentorship experiences, Bartelt said.
At the charter school, instructors hope to remedy that. The school will operate on the "Treffert approach," which identifies a child's strengths and helps grow those strengths through integrating them into education, and puts a focus on relationships, Doll said.
Throughout each lesson, topics students are passionate about, such as sports, cars and animals, will be brought in, helping them to "instinctively learn and grow faster," said Wisnet owner and board member Rick Kolstad.
As a learner-centered school, Design39 teaches in a similar way, designing lessons around "learner experiences" to teach a child to be both career-ready and life-ready, Erpelding said.
When hiring teachers, Design39 looks for "superpowers," such as rock climbing or owning a small business, which gives those teachers skills to integrate into classes and inspire learning.
In Design39 classrooms, children get to help create the lessons and are encouraged to follow their curiosities. If a student brings in money from a grandparent for show-and-tell, it can spark a conversation about currency classmates have from around the world, and turn into a lesson where the coins are mapped and exchange rates explored, Erpelding said.
Data support strengths-focused education. A 2010 Gallup poll of 259,310 students in grades five through 12 found 84% of students who said "my school is committed to building the strengths of each student" were engaged in school.
In Galt Joint Union Elementary School District in California, where a strengths-based education was implemented, the percent of students "meeting or exceeding standards rose from 37 to 43.1 in English language arts and from 25 to 35.9 in math," while the number of suspensions and failing grades decreased, according to the Hechinger Report, an online news source that covers "inequality and innovation in the classroom."
Celebrating neurodiversity through positive relationships with peers
Along with strengths, Treffert Way will put relationships into the spotlight.
Classrooms will integrate children who are neurotypically developed — or who do not have autism or varying developmental or intellectual differences — and those who are neurodiverse and have "unique abilities and skills," Doll said.
Supports used in the district with non-neurotypical students will be incorporated to create an environment that helps them "know what is to be expected and to make sense of their day," as well give them a way to communicate and be regulated, Bartelt said. For young, nonverbal children, this means using visuals to represent tasks and their schedules, Dardis said.
Bringing together students with diverse abilities has been a success at Treffert Academy. In classrooms of all skill levels, children are seen supporting each other's special interests and meeting each other where they are at as they learn cognitive skills, as well as empathy and grit.
At the academy, children created drawings with a visiting neurodiverse artist who didn't "largely speak," said Doll. However, when a 4-year-old girl exchanged drawings and ideas with him, he did. It was the first time he had really engaged with other kids, Doll said.
"When you consider diversity, children normally don't see the differences," Doll said.
Creating neurodiverse classrooms is also important at Minneapolis' Spero Academy.
In a state where charter schools act as their own district, Spero Academy is the only kindergarten through sixth-grade charter school primarily focused on helping students with disabilities in the state.
For every student, the academy creates personalized learning plans and specialized education plans, even those without an IEP — 8% of the academy's population, said Curtis Windham, the academy's director.
Academy classrooms are also held at a one-to-four student-to-teacher ratio, and children are separated into three different types of learning groups. There are grade-level classrooms for students who do not have IEPs or for those who do but are higher functioning, to promote an inclusive environment where they can learn together, Windham said.
Additional support rooms are utilized in the second level, where students have the inclusive environment for 60% of the day and 40% receive personalized instruction. In personalized learning support rooms, children receive individualized instruction all day, rather than moving into the blended classrooms.
In each class, children learn socioemotional skills, which help them integrate into basic conversations and interactions, and become successful outside of school as well, he said.
Atypical classroom setup a common thread among neurodiverse charters
Integration may also come from mixing students of various grade levels. At i4 Learning Community School, mixed-grade classrooms help to bridge the power of strengths and relationships.
Part of the Kewaskum School District in Fond du Lac and Washington counties, i4 is one of three elementary options available to parents, according to Principal Jake Flood.
As they engage in individualized learning at i4, students are separated into kindergarten through second grade and third through fifth grade cohorts. For the youngest students, there is a 4K stand-alone classroom. This provides students the opportunity to "pay it forward," as they grow from the youngest students into the cohort's leaders, Flood said.
In addition to whole- and small-group instruction, Treffert Way students will work in multi-age classrooms based on interests and strengths, according to Dardis.
The rooms themselves will take on a hub-like setup. Students will maintain a home-base classroom, while traveling from classroom to classroom throughout the day. Rather than desks, students will work at work areas and stations to encourage movement and thinking, Williams said.
According to a study by the National Academics of Science Engineering Medicine in 2013, students who were more active "show greater attention, have faster cognitive processing speed, and perform better on standardized academic tests than children who are less active."
Dardis said: "So many schools are looking at 'we need that time to teach. We have to have that academic (time).' It's backfiring. It really is. Kids are having more behavior problems because of that."
Further helping to allay behavioral issues is the relationship between the student and teacher. Having teachers like Williams and Dolan, who will serve as the primary educators at the school and understand the children's background and their thought process, makes the difference in education, Doll said.
"It isn't that (teachers) taught us a really cool thing," he said. "It's about the relationships we had with them. You don't have a lot behavioral issues or learning issues when you're in a relationship, because you're really reaching someone at their basic level."
Preparing students for life beyond the classroom
Relationships at Treffert Way are also expected to extend outside the classroom. One major part of the school will bring students and local industries together to learn. Many times, children begin thinking too late about what they want to do in their lives, Doll said, when they should be having experiences of what is possible at age 10 and younger.
"That's why our focus is getting out into the community and exposing children to lots of opportunities and possibilities, so as they continue to develop, they recognize their strengths, and they can continue to grow those into life-sustaining careers," Doll said.
From a young age, students will work with community organizations, such as on Farm Fridays. The organizations also will act as mentors to them, with the hope of creating internships with local businesses for students. Schools will mentor students on skill sets, while mentoring students on the different ways students think and use their strengths, Bartelt said.
By giving students various experiences, students will be able to find their spark and "have a better of idea" of what they would like to do post-graduation, Develice said. While her son had a passion for animation and video editing, it was difficult to find mentors in the field. High school teachers ended up being a resource, she said.
At Tomorrow River Community Charter School in Amherst, which draws students from 16 different school districts, experiential learning is a large part of the curriculum.
Based on the Waldorf education model, classrooms are trauma sensitive and offer a "warm, soft, comforting environment," where they learn at a developmentally appropriate rate, Founder and Executive Director Chamomile Nusz said.
Prior to first grade, students learn through storytelling, poetry and songs. At the age of 6 or 7, when brains can start to understand abstract concepts, the school begins with traditional academics, and by third grade, they are on par with testing results as children in public schools, Nusz said.
When learning math and reading, rarely are they reading from a textbook, watching a video or sitting in a lecture. Instead, they engage in hands-on activities. In the nature education course, children are taught by students at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. On 200 acres of land, students learn to take care of chickens, garden and care for the grounds. Music is interwoven through lessons with flute, pentatonic flutes, recorders and violin. Even through the school's new virtual program, students learn through interaction.
Experts in various fields also teach to the students, and each month students take a field trip to a place related to the community.
"We teach to the head, the heart and the hand," Nusz said. "They're not just good test takers, they're good at figuring out any problem we put in front of them."
As the movement swells, schools see enrollment increases
At each school — and at Treffert Way — the end goal is to have children love learning throughout their lives and thrive no matter their plans post-high school.
"One of the unique things is that we can spend a great deal of time really looking at the whole child along with whatever their strength is in order to fully develop that person into a strong, unique person that they could become when they may not have in a traditional setting," said Edward Jedlicka, a licensed, professional counselor who specializes in psychotherapy as well as autism evaluation and diagnosis services at Agnesian Healthcare. Along with Doll and Supervisor of Autism Services Megan Puddy, Jedlicka is part of the team from Agnesian working with the school.
Parents in the area — and around the United States — are responding well to these concepts. When the first informational meeting was held, the Treffert Way team feared only a few people may come. Instead, 30 to 40 showed up.
At Tomorrow River, enrollment has grown from 50 students in 2013 to 180 in its seventh year.
Spero Academy has a waiting list large enough to build another school at the 168-student capacity and still have students left over.
Since opening in 2014, Design39's enrollment grew from 840 to more than 1,100.
Ideas already taking root among institutions of higher education
In the Fond du Lac area, the ideas of The Treffert Center and Treffert Way are reaching into other organizations. Some area colleges are "very interested" in Treffert Way's approach, said Williams. Instead of seeing students who do not go on to college or have high rates of failure, by working with the colleges, the school can help both students and colleges be prepared, Bartelt said.
At The Treffert Center, a Transition Leadership Group, composed of students who are in high school or have graduated, with a majority being savants, receive help as they transition to various careers and examine the skills needed for success, Jedlicka said.
Moraine Park Technical College — which has a disability resources program to assist students with various challenges — also held training to teach instructors how to more effectively work with students who have autism or are "twice exceptional" as they transition.
As they open this school year, Treffert Way staff hope to see other schools — and the community at large — join the trend.
Each child, no matter what they or their family is dealing with, is doing their best, said Bartelt, and instead of leaping to judgments, people should meet them where they're at and "look at growth from there."
"Everybody has a different vision of success," she said. "Everybody has something to contribute, and some of these quirky kids, they might come up with something to change the world someday."
An AP Member Exchange Feature shared by Fond du Lac Reporter