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Supporters Want Charter School For Children With Autism

Pixabay karelinstrange

MINOCQUA – Local school officials are eying Nicolet College’s Lakeland campus building in Minocqua as the possible site for a charter school for special-needs students, with a focus on those living with Asperger’s Syndrome and others on the autism spectrum.

Monday night, supporters of the charter school urged the Lakeland Union High School Board of Education to not only support the concept, but “to help it get off the ground” financially. They would like to have the charter school operational by the fall of 2018. Gregg Walker, the father of a child with autism, has been in the forefront of pushing for a Lakeland area autism charter school, modeled after the acclaimed Lionsgate Academy in Minnetonka, Minn. Walker is an owner and publisher of the Lakeland Times newspaper in Minocqua. He told the board that the charter school would give parents with special needs children “a choice” outside of mainstreaming their education.

Autism is a complex neurological disorder that affects individuals primarily in the areas of social interaction, communication and behaviors, according to Autism Society, Wisconsin. The website aspennj.org says, “Individuals with ASD and related disorders have “IQ’s typically in the normal to very superior range. They are usually educated in the mainstream, but most require special education services.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported last year that the incidence rate of autism among eight-year-olds in the United States remains at 1 out of 68 children

. Lionsgate Academy is a Minnesota public charter school, which serves grades 7-12. Established in 2008, it’s open to all students of all abilities; however, their program is inclusively designed to meet the unique needs of students living with Asperger’s Syndrome and those on the autism spectrum Other parents of autism children, educators and a few business owners also leant support for the charter school at the school board meeting. “I think the goal of educating children is to get them to a point where they are successful members of society, in the best way they can,” said Kimberly Walker, mother of an autism child. “Children on the spectrum are sometimes thought as, they don’t have the capability of becoming productive members of society. I disagree. I think this population has a great skill set that can be an asset to a lot of business people, in a lot of different ways, (and) the military. “This school will accentuate all the positives, all their strengths (and) find the niches that these kids have and help them become productive in society.” Doing so, she said, would save taxpayers money down the road. “If these children can’t be productive in society, they’ll have to be supported somehow.”

Some of these supporters comprise a group known as the NW School/Academy Governance Council, which is spearheading the creation of the charter school for special needs students. Representatives made their initial pitch for the school at last year’s meeting of the five “All School Boards” (LUHS and the four public elementary schools that feed into it).

The All School Boards will meet again Dec. 13 to hear another presentation on the NW School/Academy. Center in that discussion will be how to finance the charter school, both in its start-up phase and in ensuing years. The Governance Council wants to start “small,” as Gregg Walker relayed Lionsgate Academy’s strong recommendation to do just that. The district administrators recommended enrolling no more than 18 students, coming from 7th to 12th grades. Those numbers would require six teachers and three paraprofessionals for the first year, according to minutes from a recent meeting of the Lakeland Area Consortium (district administrators from the five schools). The ratio of staff/students is very low in order to give students individual attention. District administrators and their finance managers will be working in coming weeks to determine the range of costs for participation in the charter school. It was noted Monday that each school district has tentatively committed $50,000 for the first year of operation. Those funds would include hiring a lead teacher for the program. But are the start-up funds inadequate? One school board member thinks so. “My concern actually is that you are not starting out with enough money,” said Barry Seidel. He did some quick calculations of 18 students times $12,000 in current state aid per student, plus the $250,000 tentatively offered by the five districts to arrive at $466,000. “I’m wondering if we are going to have to commit more as districts, or if private funding will kick in for some of that,” Seidel said. “We haven’t even talked about remodeling (the Nicolet building).” “I’ve never seen so many people willing to step up and support this,” Walker said in response. “We got a $150,000 donation before we even got off the ground.” He said a local business has offered to renovate the 64,000-square foot Nicolet building, apparently at little or no cost. The Lac du Flambeau tribal council is also researching funding, including grants. Walker said the group’s goal is to secure $33,000 in state aid for each charter school student. “I think (Gov. Scott Walker) will get there.” He said state Sen. Tom Tiffany and Rep. Rob Swearingen have promised they “would go to the wall to get this funded with the governor.”

He added that Gov. Walker plans to visit Lionsgate Academy next April to see first-hand its operation. Walker said it was important that the schools support the proposed facility. “We just can’t go to the state with nothing; we have to have some form of a school.” Estimates are that each student at the charter school would need about 300 square feet for comfort and instruction purposes, but that figure could be reduced to 200 square feet in the future. Director of Finance Greg Kopp thought a remodeled Nicolet facility could hold upwards of 30 to 35 charter school students. Board member Barb Peck interjected that the Nicolet College Board has not even taken up the proposal of allowing LUHS to use their building for the charter school. (The matter was brought up briefly at the Nicolet’s board meeting also on Monday.) Board member Jon Berg thought the Nicolet facility would be an “ideal” site for the charter school. Another possibility said board president Ed Schaub is the land and house the district purchased this past summer west of the athletic field. Under a recent change in the state education budget, LUHS can give preference to students in the Lakeland area. Previously, such charter schools with insufficient capacity to enroll all prospective students had to employ a lottery method of admitting students. The change in the law was the direct result of lobbying efforts of the NW School/Academy people, Walker said. “No matter what comes of this, Lakeland Union High School is on the map in Madison, including DPI (state Department of Public Instruction). “In the end we got the law changed, but we didn’t get the finances we asked for.” District Administrator/Principal Jim Bouché weighed in that the University of Wisconsin would be interested in sending its interns to gain clinical training opportunities if the model school became a reality. The board took no action, pending the All School Boards meeting and more information.

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