Tyrone private school preparing children with autism and other disabilities for the future —
By M.J. Subiria Tortorello
Special to TheCitizen.com
Katelyn Anderson, mother to 6-year-old Knox, said she gave the Fayette County Public School System a chance but it just wasn’t the right fit for her son with autism.
Though the people in the county’s public school system were kind and well-intentioned, public school was a place where Knox was managed, she said. “He was not given proper chances throughout the day to feel successful, to learn, or to be stretched,” said Anderson.
Knox currently attends ClearWater Academy, in Tyrone, she said. According to Anderson, instead of telling Knox to sit down all day long, the teachers and staff at ClearWater utilize a variety of techniques that allow him to learn while regulating his multi-sensory needs.
“ClearWater has, happily for us, given Knox all those things and more,” she continued. According to Anderson, Knox was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at age 2 and a half. She said she started seeing signs of autism in her son at the very early age of one.
The ultimate goal for Knox is for him to grow up to be an independent and self-reliant adult, and ClearWater will help her son get there. “ClearWater sees Knox as a child with potential, not as a test score,” she said.
“At the time, the main things that stood out to us was an overall lack of communication,” said Anderson, of Fayetteville. She said her son had no real verbalization, nor did he point at anything to indicate interest, which were communication skills he was lacking as a toddler. She said she suspected autism early on but was advised by one of their doctors that Knox did not have autism, and they pursued speech therapy.
“While hearing that our child did not have autism was a relief, we also felt a little lost,” she said. According to Anderson, eventually a new speech therapist recommended an autism diagnosis for Knox at the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta, where she finally received an official diagnosis for her son. She said the ultimate goal for Knox is for him to grow up to be an independent and self-reliant adult, and ClearWater will help her son get there. “ClearWater sees Knox as a child with potential, not as a test score,” she said.
ClearWater Academy is a non-profit, 501(c)(3), private school that serves children with special needs, according to ClearWater officials. Children that attend the school may have Autism Spectrum Disorder or other neuro-developmental challenges, according to ClearWater Academy’s website, www.clearwateracademy.org.
These challenges may be delays in motor planning, social interaction skills, executive functioning, sensory, or visual and/or auditory processing, according to school officials.
Heidi Johnson, director at ClearWater Academy, said before coming to ClearWater Academy, she worked for the Fayette County School System for 13 years. She said she has had the pleasure of working with incredible educators at the public school system.
“But sometimes the system may not serve students with specific learning needs,” she added. ClearWater, as a private school, has more freedom and flexibility to work with each child and individualize his or her learning program with differentiated instruction and strategies, said Johnson.
“In our smaller environment, with lower student to teacher ratios, we have the ability to provide many types of interventions specific to our diverse learners,” she said.
The school serves children ages 6 to 21 and offers a high school diploma, said Johnson. ClearWater is composed of lower and upper schools with flexible age groupings, she explained.
Though the school’s main focus is on academics, it also offers social-emotional development instruction, assistive technology and therapies in a sensory-sensitive environment, added Director Heidi Johnson.
“Students have the opportunity to receive therapeutic support through speech, occupational therapy, recreational therapy, drama, music, creative arts, technology, therapeutic riding, yoga, in addition to individualized training in the areas of independent living skills and career development,” she said.
Johnson said the school also provides real-world learning opportunities where the community is used as a classroom, to assist the children in gaining independence and personal success for daily living. “Every student has his[or] her own schedule with classes tailored to their needs,” she added.
Katelyn Anderson said therapies are a part of her son’s curriculum, which relieves her of having to take her son to therapies after school.
“Because all of Knox’s therapies … take place during school hours, once the school day is over, we can go home and spend time together instead of living in our car as we drive to those therapeutic services,” she said.
Anderson said the main reason she enrolled Knox in ClearWater was because she felt it would provide her son with a curriculum that will serve his current needs, and prepare him with future possibilities beyond school. “Though we don’t know what his future will look like, through ClearWater his education can be set up to allow him the chance to attend a college or vocational school upon graduation,” she said.
Anderson’s concerns are similar to those of ClearWater Academy’s founders, Dr. Mohamad Kassem and Lynne Kassem, when they created the school for their son. According to the school’s website, the Kassems initially enrolled their son in public school and noticed their son was not progressing academically, socially and emotionally.
The Kassems began to research private schools in the southside of Atlanta, and found they either served children with very mild disabilities, or profound disabilities. According to the Kassems, there was nothing for children like their son, who had an individual way of learning and programs that were offered were a “one size fits all,“ which was not suitable for the success of their son. Therefore, they created the private school, which opened its doors in 2008, according to school officials.
Angie Read-McSpadden, who has been at ClearWater Academy for 10 years, wears many hats proudly at the school. She said she is the Creative Arts Coordinator, High School Homeroom Teacher and Outdoor Recreational Therapy Supervisor, at ClearWater.
“I oversee many of the creative needs and endeavors that may arise from fund-raisers, community partnerships … and coordinating artists that work with our students for the [g]ala performance, in addition to teaching numerous modes of art to our students,” she said.
According to director Heidi Johnson, because the school is a non-profit organization, in order for it to accomplish its mission each year it holds fund-raising events, such as the upcoming “ClearWater Academy Charity Gala: Benefiting Students with Special Needs,” on Nov. 9, at 6 p.m., at Camp Southern Ground, 100 Southern Ground Pkwy., Fayetteville. The cost of attendance is $125 per person, or a table of eight for $900.
There are also various sponsorship opportunities currently being offered. During the dressy casual event, guests will enjoy dinner, dessert and a silent auction. The event will include entertainment by local musician Daniel Toole, who is currently volunteering in assisting upper school students with their musical performances for the gala event.
“Because we are such a highly specialized non-profit school, it takes a lot of financial resources to make each day happen,” said Johnson. Student tuition only covers about 65 percent of the budget and thus the school relies on community support through grants, corporate donations, individual donations, and fund-raising events,” she said.
“We welcome the support of the community and for those with a heart and love for students with disabilities,” she said.
Funds from the gala event are distributed to different areas that will assist the students, faculty and the school’s unique programs, added Read-McSpadden. The funds raised will support areas such as the various therapies offered for students, operational costs, retaining and obtaining highly skilled staff and training, educational tools and technologies, as well as, marketing to reach new families and partners, she said.
“As we grow our support community and discover the strengths of our students, we are developing a network of opportunities for our students to achieve in the areas of their strengths which should ultimately lead to a productive future,” said Read-McSpadden.
Eric Dial, mayor of Tyrone and treasurer of the ClearWater Academy board, said he believes it is critical to have a particularly tailored school like ClearWater Academy because there are children that respond to a different style of teaching and social environment that may not be offered in a traditional school setting.
“One of the important functions of the school is to provide a pathway to assimilation for each student in the community after graduation,” said Dial. “Members of our community need to introduce themselves to the students in order to assist with this process,” added the mayor.
Dial said he’s had the pleasure of supporting the school in his capacity as mayor, provided financial support, and has been able to get to know the students on a personal level.