South Charlotte

Epiphany School helps teach social skills

As any parent of a middle school student will attest, those years can be daunting socially and emotionally.

"It is a highly conforming time when there is less acceptance of differences and those who don't fit the cookie cutter mold," said Michelle Smith, 46, head of school for the Epiphany School of Charlotte.

Epiphany, a private school with a yearly tuition of about $17,000, offers "social and academic success for... children who move through the social world just a little differently."

Its students often struggle socially and are lacking the skills that allow them to fit into a traditional school environment.

"They might be several levels ahead in math," Smith said of Epiphany's typical students, who are often academically advanced, "but they can't figure out where to sit in the cafeteria."

Epiphany first opened its doors in August 2010 and was the brainchild of Karen Johnson, a special education teacher at Manus Academy in south Charlotte. She recognized the need for a safe place for middle school students that is bully-free and could focus on the social, communication and developmental skills that students with ADHD, Asperger's and autism need.

Students attending Epiphany do not have to be labeled to attend the school because the curriculum is based on a student's strengths and needs rather than on an official diagnosis.

The need for the middle school was apparent to Johnson and others working with students who were struggling to fit in socially. Epiphany also offered two weeks of summer camp this summer for children who wanted to work on their social skills.

The camp and the school are situated on the campus of Thompson Child and Family Focus in Matthews.

As Smith explains, "ADHD, Asperger's and autism are not insurmountable problems on their own. But when coupled with the social pressures of middle school, these diagnoses can lead to new diagnoses of depression and anxiety."

What Epiphany provides is a specialized curriculum but also a safe place to learn, practice and master social skills.

"When you are in an environment where everyone needs the skills, it is not embarrassing or shameful," said Smith.

The school's first class had eight students, but this year it will open a second class of eight students ranging in age from 8 to 14 and representing third grade through eighth grade.

Originally intended as a middle school, Epiphany has expanded to elementary school because Smith kept fielding calls from parents who said they could not wait until middle school to seek help for their children.

All classes are interactive and nonjudgmental because, said Smith, "we intentionally depersonalize the instruction."

A popular class is called Friends and Feelings and it addresses a complaint many Epiphany students have about being unable to keep a friend. Students are taught conflict resolution, how to recognize emotions (both their own and someone else's) and how to interpret someone's tone of voice and body language and cues.

For the students who have found a safe haven and the parents who appreciate the individualized instruction, they feel that the Epiphany School of Charlotte is the right fit.