Starting an autism school has long been a dream of mine—especially since my "‹non-speaking son, Liam, aged out of his preschool program. I want to build a place where Liam can learn with his autistic peers, be nurtured for who he is, and I love the idea of integrated schools, where autism professionals and teachers work together. Like many other parents, I spend much of my time running my son from one therapy or activity to the next, so I also love the idea of having all Liam's services and enrichments—OT, speech, assisted communication, ABA, art, academics, fitness, and more—under one roof.
With this in mind, I was thrilled when my husband's job took us to the Portland, Oregon area for a year. Portland is home to Victory Academy, a fantastic year-round, all-autism school. Although Liam doesn't attend Victory, I took a tour of the school and chatted with Tricia Hasbrook, co-founder and director, about what it takes to build an excellent school for kids on the spectrum. Tricia's got a master's in English and one in teaching. She worked in a public school district as a literacy coach and language arts teacher for 10 years before she founded Victory. Her inspiration came from A.J., her son with autism, who's now 15 (the two are pictured above).
"I wasn't disillusioned with people or therapies," Hasbrook says. "But I wanted an integrated model of learning for A.J.. I wanted a school with teachers targeted at autism."
And that's what she set out to build. Early in 2009, Hasbrook convinced her like-minded friend and fellow mom to a child on the spectrum, Thea Schreiber, to join her. They sat down at Schreiber's kitchen table and began to discuss finances, staff, therapies, and a mission statement. Hasbrook tackled the 5013c paperwork, which would grant them nonprofit status, and they began fundraising. By the fall of 2009, Victory had opened with eight students. Now 60 kids attend Victory five days a week, year round at a beautiful new school, which houses a therapy wing, nine classrooms, a gym, and outdoor space. It was designed to help kids with autism specifically, meaning attention was paid to acoustics, the hallways are wide enough for kids to ride scooters or bikes through them, and each room has different lighting, faucets, and other fixtures, to help prepare kids for the wide variety of these things they'll have to use out in the "real" world.
Hasbrook offered these tips if you're trying to build a school like Victory:
Have a clear vision and mission.
Know what you want, and research similar schools. Hasbrook notes that there are so many more autism schools open now than when she got started, and she suggests researching them so you can clarify the overall purpose of your school and figure out the daily logistics of running it.
Find like-minded people.
Volunteers are crucial to the success of schools like Victory, as are parents who can contribute in different ways (indeed, Victory asks parents at the time of application to explain how they can contribute to the school). Hasbrook notes that Victory has been extremely lucky in finding families that have helped the school grow, and her partnership with Schreiber and their shared vision has also been the strong foundation that's helped Victory thrive.
Secure nonprofit status as quickly as possible.
Getting nonprofit status helps ease some of the tuition burden on parents, and it allows your school to apply for grants and other aid. Hasbrook suggests getting started on it ASAP, as it's a laborious process with a steep learning curve.
Look for a space that will work first, and then build your ideal space.
Victory didn't have its own building in 2009. In fact, at first it was housed in one room, within another school. After that, it took over the classrooms left when another small private school closed. Finally, after six years of making it work in borrowed spaces, Victory Academy moved into its perfect school space. It took time to get the right space, but Hasbrook says it was well worth the wait.
Know there will be challenges, but keep going.
Certainly, Hasbrook, Schreiber, and the Victory team have faced challenges along the way—they almost didn't get off the ground because of funding—but now, they work to find creative ways to raise money so tuition doesn't soar, and they're constantly working to keep the quality of instruction high while facing tremendous student growth.
See more positives than negatives.
Although there are challenges—kids having tough days, administrative hurdles, staffing issues—Hasbrook makes a point to see more positives than negatives every day. "It can be crazy," she says. "But it's always fun, and I love the kids. Going to work is never a chore for me."
So, dream big. If there isn't a good school available near you for your child on the spectrum, perhaps you can build one. If the success and happiness of the kids at Victory is any indication, it's a dream well worth pursuing.