When Phil and Jane Blount faced the academic future of their 11-year-old son, Philip, they weren’t sure they liked what they saw. Philip, who had cognitive and learning disabilities, needed a kind of education different from what the public school system could give him. He didn’t need college prep, but life prep. He needed to be taught basic life skills so one day, he could live on his own. Before 2005, there weren’t many options for students like Philip. He couldn’t follow a standard school curriculum. He needed something more tailored to his learning style.Barbara Parish, who had previously worked as a school counselor with Philip, grew close to the Blounts and empathized with their situation. The Blounts and Parish founded Philips Academy in 2005 as a private nonprofit school, and placed the facilities at Trinity Presbyterian Church on Providence Road, where the Blounts were members. The Blounts would head up the board, while Parish became the head of the school. The academic mission would be to prepare their students for adulthood and successful integration into their communities. “College is not for everyone, and that’s not a bad thing,” Parish says. “These students have a great capacity to live and work and live independently and make a place for themselves in the community, but they need very practical instruction. They don’t need to spend all this time and energry on trying to pass an algebra or chemistry test, or take a foreign language. They need instruction in life skills: balancing a checkbook, maintaining a budget and being a good employee.”When Philips Academy opened its doors in August 2005, it only had two students, including Philip, and two instructors. It now has 29 students and 13 instructors, all of whom are certified and experienced special education teachers. Many of the instructors hold multiple master’s degrees and have several years of experience in the course they are teaching. “We keep the teacher-student ratio very small for a reason,” Parish says. “We want to be able to give each student the individual attention they need, and we don’t want to overwhelm our instructors with too many students. Because most of the students here don’t learn from their mistakes, the instructors have to give a lot of individual attention to meet the students’ needs.”The students at Philips Academy have diagnoses that are not easily definable. Tuition for the 10-month academic year is $16,786 plus a $500 enrollment fee; 10 percent of tuition revenue goes to a financial aid pool for parents who need assistance, Parrish says. “Most of them are somewhere on the autism spectrum and are of low to average cognitive abilities,” Parish says. “But there are some who don’t exactly fit into a specific category, so there’s a catch-all category named ‘Not Otherwise Specified.’ And that’s kind of what Philips Academy is for - to have a place for those who don’t fit anywhere else.”
Bridging the gap
Philips Academy enrolls students from middle school and high school, with ages ranging from 12 to 20. The school graduated its first four seniors in June. Two hundred people, from parents and instructors to community members, showed up for the graduation. In June 2011, they will graduate four more. In 2009, Philips Academy began its first post-secondary program for those who graduated from the academy. It is also open to those who attended and graduated from other schools as well.The Bridges program, designed to be a two-year program with a third-year option, was created as a way to “bridge” the gap between the life of a student and the life of an adult. In the program, young adults learn how to live on their own – some completely independently, some with additional support. They learn practical life skills, such a how to cook, clean and live with a roommate, as well as how to manage their finances and keep a job.In its first year, the program had six students who met with two instructors in a large classroom at Philips Academy, but Parish was determined to find a house for the students to use for the program, as it would better equip them for life on their own. When she approached the Philips Academy board about the possibility, board member Mike Wiggins spoke up.Wiggins, who works for the real estate development company Crosland and whose son Ryan attends Philips Academy, knew of a home in the SouthPark area that had recently become available. The long-term tenant had moved out and Crosland had not yet listed the property. “We needed a house that was in the community the students were already familiar with,” Wiggins says. “It also needed to be in walking distance of retail and the bus line, so the Hazelton House was perfect.”The Hazelton House, as it has been unofficially named by the students and parents, seemed like the solution the program’s needs. When Wiggins approached his colleagues, they didn’t have to think twice about donating the house to the program. Cindy Peoples, the executive assistant to the president and CFO of Crosland, said that they all agreed it was a program the company wanted to support. “We’ve always been a philanthropic company, from day one,” Peoples says. “It really defines us as a company. And this is such a great program, because it’s helping these kids become contributing members of society.”
‘Learning by doing’
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The house was officially donated in March 2009. The rent is $5 a month and the program pays sweat equity. In other words, the students, parents and staff put maintenance work into the home. They worked all summer on the house and when it opened in late August, the students felt a sense of accomplishment. “The parents and students were so excited,” Parish says. “They worked hard and happily to get it ready. They even furnished and decorated the house with donated items and things from their own homes. It truly was a wonderful group project and they are so proud of it.”Once the program began in the Hazelton House, student enrollment jumped from six to 11. Both young men and women spend their days at the house with supervising staff members doing household chores, cooking, and getting to and from work and school. They also attend class at the Hazelton House, taking courses such as Life 101, where the students learn how to live with a roommate. Parish says that it’s the very practical instruction and the “learning by doing” teaching methods that are preparing the students for life on their own. “We’re going to want for them to have a job and manage their own affairs,” she says. “The goal is for them to take care of themselves, but they need direct instruction. They need a teacher and a lot of practice and modeling.”While the students don’t stay overnight at the house, they do have respite weeks during the summer. During two weeks of the summer, one week for men and one week for women, the students stay overnight in the house and get intensive instruction on how to live independently. Matt Halls, the director of the program, said it’s during these weeks that the students start to understand what being an adult is all about.“They begin to realize what it’s like without mom and dad there all the time,” Halls says. “And sometimes it can be a little bit of a shock. They start to realize that this is serious business, and really begin to become comfortable in their new routine.”Halls also says that the students are held to high expectations, which they strive to meet. “Going to dinner and a movie is a big deal for them, because some of them have never done it before on their own,” he says. “One of our major goals is to get them outside their comfort level enough to expand their social networks, so they can have friends and feel comfortable outside their families and school.”Mike Wiggins’ son, Ryan, is 20. Wiggins says he has seen drastic improvement within Ryan since he was enrolled in the program. “We mainstreamed Ryan until he was in the seventh grade, and we realized he needed something different,” Wiggins says. “Now, he’s such a confident young man, has a job and an adult routine. I’ve been very pleased with Ryan’s achievements while at Philips Academy.”Wiggins is an avid supporter of the Bridges program. “There’s always something that needs to be done when living in a house or apartment, so (the program) gives them invaluable life skills,” he says. “They use the house as a lab for every day living, and do normal every day things that we take for granted. Ryan really enjoys his time there.”
More informationFor more information about the Bridges Program or Philips Academy, visit www.philipsacademync.org.