Lionsgate Academy was started by Bernadette Groh R.N., M.S., P.H.N., and Tamara Phillips M.A., who were intrigued with idea that public schools could do a better job of educating teenage children living with autism. They began the journey by interviewing experts in the fields of autism education, health, transition, employment, and research. Many of the experts with whom they consulted advised that creating such a school would be too great an undertaking. Nonetheless, they persisted and attracted enough interested members of the community to hold the first meeting in July of 2006.

At that meeting, Steven Waisbren M.D., Ph.D., a father of a teen with autism and a surgeon in the community, was appointed chairman of the newly formed board of directors. Others in attendance included a retired school principal and director of special education, a coordinator of special education to charter schools, special education teachers, and parents of children with autism, as well as an expert in creating charter schools. Operating principles of the school were established: start small, rely on experts in the field using research-based or best practice educational techniques, and maintain pristine finances.

From there, the founding board developed the mission and vision statements. These statements were not just words, but were chosen to truly reflect the goals and vision for the school. The developers wanted to look at the big picture. The plan was not just to move students from seventh grade to eighth grade, but to focus on where they would be at age 21, 25, and 40. Their goals for the graduates of the school were to go on to further educational opportunities or find a good job, live independently, and maintain meaningful relationships with others. This was to be accomplished by developing a supportive environment between the families, school, and the larger community.  They also recognized the critical importance of getting these children into the community for experiences, internships, and projects so that they would be exposed to the real world and learn to live and cope in that environment. Thus, the developers emphasized the need for strong ties between the school and the community.

The developers wanted the name of the school to reflect their mission as well as be sensitive to their particular needs. They liked the concept that secondary school is just a gateway to the rest of the students’ lives. They also wanted a strong name that  touched them on a personal level.  These two parents, by coincidence, each have a child with autism named Ari. In Hebrew and in Arabic Ari means courage, or lion. Thus, the name Lionsgate Academy was born.

The name and the idea of this school seemed to catch on. Others contacted the developers to join in or were recruited for their expertise. These individuals included attorneys, advocates for children with autism, finance experts, information technologists, health care providers, and therapists who worked with children on the spectrum. Many of these same people were the parents of children with autism. Institutions and foundations also joined the cause:  Autism Society of Minnesota, University of Minnesota, University of St. Thomas, Opportunity Partners, Courage Center, MacPhail School of Music, VSA Arts Minnesota, Welsch Companies, and Border Foods.

Critical to the foundation of a charter school is finding an authorizer, who takes the actual responsibility for assuring that the charter school board meets its stated mission. The Adler Graduate School, whose president is a former school superintendent, was chosen because of their experience in sponsoring schools and for the mission match between the two organizations.   Dennis Rislove, the president of the Adler Graduate School, was a wonderful supporter of the mission.

While the board and partners were expanded, the 212-page application to the State of Minnesota was written. Teaching methods were based on models of a few other schools in the country with a similar focus, as well as the advice of experts in autism education. This application was completed in July 2007, one year after the initial meeting to start the school. The application reportedly received the highest rating of the 22 submitted and the acceptance was announced in October 2007.  A few months later, the Minneapolis Star Tribune heard about the school and wrote a front-page article about the efforts.  This article was picked up in the national media and reprinted in such papers as the Milwaukee Sentinel, Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post. Other organizations started to spread the word. The school was the topic in online support groups and Google’s “Autism Alerts.” After that publicity, the founders were inundated with requests for more information. Over 770 families living with a child with autism filled out a survey supporting the effort to build a school that may potentially help their child.

To this end, the parents of the two Aris spent over $25,000 of their own money to develop this free public school. They did not seek outside support until the application was approved.  Furthermore, Lionsgate Academy was prohibited by law from obtaining its own non profit status until the school was approved by the Minnesota Department of Education. Thus, the Autism Society of Minnesota agreed to serve as the fiscal agent until Lionsgate’s tax exempt paperwork cleared. The developers of Lionsgate enjoyed this relationship with the Autism Society because of the society’s excellent financial controls and status of being supported by such a respected group.

Lionsgate Academy never had a major setback from the time lines developed primarily by Johana Sand, the start-up coordinator. Johana Sand had been involved with the charter school movement for a number of years and she had helped over ten schools. The search for a suitable location was particularly vexing. Richard Friedrichs, a vice president for the Welsch Companies, volunteered his time and helped us find a wonderful partner to house the school: the Cornerstone Church. The church had a twelve-acre site with a former elementary school building. The site was particularly attractive to the developers of Lionsgate Academy because serving families with children with disabilities is part of the church’s mission.

Lionsgate Academy began to hire staff and recruit families. The school faced a number of challenges: staff and families would not commit to the school until they knew where it was to be located, and the bus companies could not commit until they knew where the students lived and the hours of operation, and the administration could not determine staffing needs until they knew the specific needs of the students. Everything had to fall into place at once.

Jody Van Ness, an educator and mother of a young man living with autism, was appointed as the first executive director. The administration went on to hire a well-qualified staff including general and special education teachers and aides, social workers, a nurse, and behavior analysts.

On September 2, 2008, Lionsgate Academy opened its doors for an initial enrollment of 70 students. Although many more than 70 students sought admission to the school, the founding board maintained their strategy of starting small and building upon success. The Minnesota Department of Education has been a true partner in developing this innovative school as we grew.

Of course, the next chapters in our history have yet to be written. Our goals are clear: graduates of Lionsgate academy will, to the fullest extent possible, move on to further education or gainful employment, live independently, and have meaningful relationships with others.

We welcome you to take part in this process.