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By Jesse Murphy

Temple Grandin School makes strides


Courtesy photo Students at Temple Grandin School in Gunbarrel have small class sizes, allowing a more individualized experience for neuro-diverse students.

Since 2011, a school in Gunbarrel has been helping students with a variety of neurological disorders ranging from autism to Asperger’s.

Co-founded by Jennifer Wilger and David Hazen, the school began when a void was created for an increasing need in the community.

“There was another private school in town that was closing that served a similar purpose but not as comprehensively,” Wilger said. “So we were able to get a jumpstart on (school) infrastructure by turning that school over and developing wrap-around programming that was better for students.”

Named after the well-known autistic Colorado State University professor and advocate for animals Temple Grandin, the school strives to help their students excel in the best environment possible.

“We’re inspired by her,” Wilger said. “That’s why we named the school in her honor. She’s interested in what we’re doing and the outcomes for our students. She follows progress of kids on the spectrum generally.”

Following Grandin’s example, the school has set out to help.

“Our target student is neuro-diverse,” Wilger said. “That includes Asperger’s Syndrome, autism and similar learning profiles. So there are kids who are bright, often exceptional, but they have challenges with social communication, perspective taking, organizational skills.

“They benefit from learning in a smaller environment with opportunities for building relationships with each other and with the teachers in their school.”

Each year the school has anywhere from 20 to 25 students, and with the teaching staff, it makes for a three-to-one student to teacher ratio.

“The smaller classes enable them to fully participate,” Wilger said. “I also think it is also the relationship with our staff. They’re all really dedicated to the learning style of each kid, and the staff is here because they want to be here. They have a positive outlook, we provide a lot of support and coaching to foster positive social interactions throughout the day.

“In some ways it’s almost like the staff are peers. We have a lot of dynamic younger teachers and professionals that know the kids very well.”

Wilger said that one of the biggest concerns from parents is that their children could lose out on social aspects of public schools.

“We get asked a lot about inclusion,” Wilger said. “As in, ‘Is it the best for the kids to be in a separate school or to be in public schools?’

“I think what we are providing here is a place of understanding in a community where (the students) feel like they belong. Other people get that they’re bright and that they have some challenges, but they’re not the focus of what we do here. That enables the students to relax and settle into a learning environment and get past some of their anxieties and concerns about not fitting in or being understood in other settings.”

The education experience is different for each individual student, who each set their own expectations.

“We work with each student to develop an individualized set of goals,” Wilger said. “These are goals that they want to work on, so it’s not what the ‘system’ or the curriculum standards require, even though we do that as well. Their goals are very much student-driven.”

Admission to the school starts in sixth grade and goes through high school.

“We do a very detailed set of interviews and information-gathering with families,” Wilger said. “This is to really make sure that this is the right place for them at this time. Also to know that the family is committed to it, it requires a lot engagement and parent involvement to really move forward on the student’s goals.”

To date, 15 Temple Grandin School students have graduated high school and two have earned college degrees.

“The reason we start at middle school is because that’s where the bottom starts to fall out for these kids in traditional schools,” Wilger said. “Academic and social demands increase, the number of transitions and the amount of organization required to manage a day increase.

“At the same time, the support is decreasing. Where in the past they would have that one main teacher, suddenly they have eight teachers. That’s the time where a lot of students start to unravel with things.”

Wilger added that the family is just as much a part of the school as the student is.

“What helps is parents knowing what we’re working on in school and reinforcing that at home,” Wilger said. “We have planners that include places to schedule after-school work. Parents are in the loop on that.”

The school is hoping to possibly grow in the future, as there are not any similar schools in the nearby area.

“We’re kind of emerging out of the start-up phase,” Wilger said. “We hope to get more community engagement. We want to build our board and reach a broader part of the community to let people know that these are a great bunch of kids with a ton of potential.

“If they are treated respectfully and with understanding, and supported to Cultivate their strengths, we can build strategies to address their challenges.”

Wilger said that the school works with public school districts in the area for placement, and has a long list of referrals for students who would benefit more from attending school somewhere else.

“Those relationships are strong,” Wilger said. “We feel like we do a good job with collaborating with the schools. We want to be a resource for school districts and families.”

Wilger — who happens to also be a member of the state special education advisory council — knows the challenges public schools face with funding.

“It’s challenging to provide what we provide in the context of a public school district,” Wilger said. “There are systemic factors that constrain schedules and staffing. We have a lot of freedom to do things the way we have learned — mostly from the students -- and the freedom to change for the kids’ needs. It’s harder to do that in a bigger system.

“We’re excited about where we are. It’s great to start seeing outcomes after working with these kids. We’re looking forward to bringing more in.”

More information on the school located at 6446 Jay Road in Gunbarrel can be found at http://www.templegrandinschool.org.


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