Kendra Freedman and her students at the Learning Circle Academy in West Bloomfield observe the plant life that has sprouted on a model frog. Freedman holds master’s level certification in special education with an autism endorsement. Among her students are Stephen VanElsLander and Olivia Jacubczak, seated, and Dononvan Montgomery, standing.
The Learning Circle Academy has carved a niche for itself in
Michigan special education. A small, private school in West Bloomfield, it
opened four years ago to serve youngsters with autism-related disorders and
those with complex learning disabilities.
Enrollment now stands at 30, up from 10 in the first year.
Because it only accepts children within a specific range of conditions and
needs, the school can focus on providing academic programs that help those
students the most, rather than trying to be all things to all special needs
students, one of the founders said.
Hasani Tucker, an 11th grader, works in the academy’s computer classroom.
Learning Circle’s students have complex learning
disabilities, which may also be accompanied by difficulties in language
processing, sensory integration and social skills. The students may be diagnosed
with moderate to high-functioning autism, Asperger’s syndrome or other moderate
to severe learning disabilities. Many of these students also have exceptional
talents in art, music or mathematics.
"Our students fall in the middle. They need academic
programming that falls between regular education and special education," said
Bonnie McDonald, who, along with Carolyn Morris, founded the school. "In a
special education classroom, these kids would not be adequately challenged. On
the other hand, in a regular education classroom, the information just gets too
Students in that ability range often develop behavior and
academic problems starting around third or fourth grade, McDonald said, because
their needs are not met in either setting. Mainstreaming a child, then pulling
him or her out for services such as speech therapy, is not a good solution
either, she said.
"Their schedules are not consistent on a day to day basis,
and they miss a great deal of instruction. Most of these kids feel like they do
not know where they really belong," McDonald said.
Autistic children in particular respond to schedules, and
"what people don’t think about is how confusing it is to be ‘pulled out’ all day
long," she said. "Our kids start to just tune out or have behavior issues."
Seeing those problems in their own children — Morris and
McDonald are each the parent of a teen-age son with special needs — the women
tried a variety of remedies, including private school, private treatment and,
eventually, a tutorial program they developed themselves and opened to half a
dozen other children.
"People started piling in and we thought, ‘Let’s get a
building,’" McDonald said. That led to the formation of Learning Circle Academy,
first a non-profit organization and now a registered nonpublic school in
Michigan. The group rents space in the Irving and Beverly Laker Educational and
Youth Complex, part of the Congregation Shaarey Zedek, in West Bloomfield.
Tuition is $17,000 a year. Class size is limited to 10, with three teachers per
Parents who come to the Learning Circle Academy typically
feel their conventional public school districts are not meeting their children’s
needs. Federal law guarantees every child with special needs a "free and
appropriate public education," but at times parents and educators can’t reach
agreement on what "appropriate" means.
That’s what happened in the case of Cheryl Shear’s son.
"We agonized. We wanted to keep him in public schools," said
Shear, a Novi resident. Her son, Duncan, did well in younger grades, but when he
was placed in a regular education classroom in middle school, with help from an
aide, "all of a sudden they started to do everything for him. He wasn’t writing.
He wasn’t paying attention. … She (the aide) was writing everything down for
him," Shear said.
This pattern of "learned helplessness" happens when students
with learning disabilities are given too much help, sometimes unwittingly, by
teachers or paraprofessionals, McDonald said. "They don’t teach them
(paraprofessionals) to fade back."
"If we had pushed harder, we could have gotten the school
district to do things," Shear said, but her son was already unhappy and
complained about going to school. He had complaints about the Learning Circle
Academy, too, but not for long, she said
"They understand him. They’re accepting of him," she said. At
his former school, "we were told he couldn’t learn multiplication yet. Here he
picked it up in a few months."
McDonald and Principal Amy Seidman attribute stories like
that, in part, to the school’s educational philosophy, which rests on the Reuven
Feuerstein Theory of Structural Cognitive Modifiability. Feuerstein, a cognitive
psychologist, is the founder and director of the International Center for the
Enhancement of Learning Potential in Israel. Like Maria Montessori, whose
educational theories led to today’s Montessori schools, Feuerstein developed a
philosophy of learning that rests on the belief that the nervous system can be
modified to achieve cognitive growth. In practice, McDonald said, that means
helping students "learn how to learn." The goal is to help the students become
The school day includes subjects like math, science and
English, but also "cognitive training," "thinking skills" and "social skills."
Children with autism-related disorders, in particular, do not always understand
that other individuals have thoughts and opinions different from their own,
McDonald explained. Socially, they don’t always recognize facial expressions or
understand that those expressions are a clue to someone’s feelings.
Social skills class teaches them "how to be social," Seidman
said. "How to talk with peers. How to go to a store and buy a T-shirt they want.
How to be a teen like any other teen in our society."
That social training appeals to Shear, who says there are
things her son learns by going on field trips with his friends that he can’t
learn in a classroom or from his parents.
Field trips are a regular and important part of the program,
McDonald said, and is the school’s way of seeing that students are "included" in
the world at large. "Inclusion" is often considered a primary goal of special
education programs, emphasizing the importance of having children with special
needs interact with children in regular education settings. The idea is that
children in regular programs will be academic and social role models for the
children with special needs, while at the same time learning to accept and
That doesn’t always happen in practice, McDonald said.
"I was a big advocate of inclusion," she said, until her own
son realized for himself the differences between himself and his classmates. "He
sort of gave up on himself."
"We see kids come to us with very poor self-esteem," she
said. "But here, everybody is like them."
Now serving fourth though 12th graders, McDonald and Morris
hope to expand programming to include younger grades in the future. They also
are working toward accreditation through the North Central Association of
Colleges and Schools. But growth will depend heavily on how many parents can
afford the $17,000 annual tuition, which covers rent, salaries and supplies. The
school does accept contributions, which are tax-deductible, and has a limited
"Almost every day I talk to people with kids who are so great
for this school, but they can’t afford the tuition," McDonald said. In other
cases, she turns away parents who can afford the school, but whose children have
different disabilities and wouldn’t be helped by the Learning Circle program.
McDonald said that conventional public school special
education programs, which are required to serve all children with all special
needs, can’t offer focused services to each student. Shear suggested that
research into learning disabilities, and ideas for intervention, may be
progressing too quickly for public school programs to keep up.
"I wish more people would start schools, specialized schools
to help kids we can’t treat here."
More information about Learning Circle Academy is available at
the school Web site,