South Charlotte

The Gift of Giving: School teaches life lessons

Starting a school with just two seventh-grade boys, two staff members and no guaranteed revenue stream could have been a recipe for disaster.

But ask any of the students or parents of south Charlotte's Philips Academy, and they'll paint you a different picture.

Founded in 2005, Philips Academy is a private nonprofit school for middle- and high-school students who have complex language, learning or cognitive disabilities, with IQ scores ranging 70-100.

The school is housed at Trinity Presbyterian Church on Providence Road near Sharon Amity Road, where co-founders Phil and Jane Blount and Barbara Parrish are members.

The Blounts founded the school in 2005, when they were desperate to find a school for their son, Philip, who, like many special needs students, fell in a gray area.

He wasn't on the college-prep track, but he didn't struggle with behavioral or emotional disorders.

So after the Blounts searched in vain, Philips Academy was born.

The classes are small (no more than four or five in a room at a time), and the curriculum is practical.

While learning algebraic principles, students learn to calculate overtime, pay bills and keep a balanced budget. In one classroom, there are shelves of canned foods and cereal boxes, so the students can calculate price per ounce at the grocery store and find the best deals.

In the home-economics classes, students learn to sew (all the curtains in the school were made by students), and in art class, they often do group projects to hone team-work skills.

Group paintings are framed in the school's hallway, and last year, they made the paintings into stationery parents could buy.

"Socially and emotionally, you see a lot of strides," said Philips Academy Director Amy Firth.

The school is funded mostly through tuition, which ranges from $17,000-$20,000, and donations.

"We recognize it's quite a sacrifice for parents," said Interim Head of School Barbara Hofland.

But it's one many parents are willing to make.

One Philips Academy student is from Columbia. After hearing about the school and its success stories, he and his mom decided to live in an apartment in Charlotte for the week and then return home on the weekends.

Six years later, the school currently has three full-time teachers and 21 students in middle school, high school and a new "Bridges" program, started two years ago.

Bridges is a two-year program designed to ease high school graduates into the transition from school to the work force to becoming self-reliant.

Bridges Program Director Matthew Hull and Paul Slane, director of career development, have established a number of community partnerships with businesses, nursing homes and nonprofits, where students volunteer and take internships.

Bridges offers the students in-depth job training at a pace that works for them.

Many of the students who don't drive also learn to take public transit.

Charlie Reichard, now 22, graduated high school at Manus Academy and then attended the Bridges program at Philips Academy. He graduated earlier this year. While in the program, he volunteered at Sardis Oaks nursing home and later took a three-month internship at Chick-fil-A's Carolinas Medical Center location.

At the end of the internship, he was offered a full-time job.

"He had a new sense of confidence in himself and a new sense of pride because someone other than his parents and teachers told him he did a good job," said Charlie's mother, Fran Reichard, a member of Philips Academy's Board of Directors.

Other Bridges graduates have gone on to work full-time or part-time jobs or enroll at Central Piedmont Community College.

One Philips Academy and Bridges alumnus, Ryan Wiggins, has been working 14-hour days as an extra on Showtime's series "Homeland" and the feature film "The Hunger Games," set to be released in March.

The school's most recent endeavor is Hazelton House, a comprehensive Residential Transitional Training component to the Bridges program.

Bridges students visit there periodically, often overnight, to learn about cooking, cleaning and maintenance.

The Philips Academy faculty teaches parents to look at their children in a different light.

"These were young adults now... (with) more adult responsibilities," said Reichard. Philips Academy "was really good about holding the parents' hand and pushing the kids out of the nest at the same time."