In Minneapolis, Parents Start a Charter School for Autistic Children

By James Walsh
Minneapolis Star Tribune
Tuesday, December 25, 2007

MINNEAPOLIS -- You can see the ache in Tamara Phillips's eyes.

As her autistic daughter, now 14, has grown, so has the loneliness -- her daughter's loneliness in school, her 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 the loneliness, and weary of years of pushing public schools to better educate their kids, a group of parents of autistic children are starting a charter school specifically for older students with the disorder. When Lionsgate Academy opens, perhaps next fall, it will be one of only a handful of public schools in the country, and the only one in Minnesota, designed for children with autism-spectrum disorders.

Founders see the facility as a place for parents to commune with other parents, and 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's 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."

Autism is a complex disability that is present from birth or very early in development. Occurring in as many as one in 166 people, it affects social interaction, the ability to communicate ideas and feelings, and the ability to establish relationships.

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 the chairman of the Lionsgate school board.

Lionsgate will enroll children in grades six through 10, eventually serving students up to the age of 21. The school is trying to find a site and to raise at least $1.5 million for specialized equipment and programming. It has enlisted the support of the Autism Society of Minnesota, the University of St. Thomas and the Autism Clinic at the University of Minnesota.

"It's difficult to have a program that focuses on autism in the public schools," said Dennis Rislove, a former superintendent of schools in Alexandria, Minn., and now the president of the Adler Graduate School. "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, 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.' "

An estimated 4,000 kids with autism live in the Twin Cities area; Lionsgate will enroll only about 130.

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