Nurturing a Spectrum of Strengths Anna Hart knew children on the spectrum could do math and other academics they weren’t accessing. So she started her own school for them. In the Limelight
In the Limelight  |   September 01, 2015
Nurturing a Spectrum of Strengths
Author Notes
  • Bridget Murray Law is editor-in-chief of The ASHA Leader.
    Bridget Murray Law is editor-in-chief of The ASHA Leader.×
Article Information
School-Based Settings / Professional Issues & Training / In the Limelight
In the Limelight   |   September 01, 2015
Nurturing a Spectrum of Strengths
The ASHA Leader, September 2015, Vol. 20, 26-27. doi:10.1044/leader.LML.20092015.26
The ASHA Leader, September 2015, Vol. 20, 26-27. doi:10.1044/leader.LML.20092015.26
Name: Anna Hart
Title: Executive director, Stepping Stones Homeschool
Hometown: Dedham, Massachusetts
Growing up, Anna Hart remembers she was initially embarrassed about her sister Angie’s autism. But that embarrassment turned to empathy when she saw others snub Angie. She resolved to help Angie as much as she could—and, the way her mother tells it, she’s largely responsible for teaching Angie to talk.
Today, Angie, 44, is married and working in a clothing store in Dedham, Massachusetts. Hart, 40, is trained as a speech-language pathology assistant and autism educator (her master’s) and on a mission to nurture along others like her sister.
So, when Hart moved from New England to Maricopa, Arizona, in 2010 and—with a speech-language pathologist’s supervision—started seeing clients privately, she was dismayed at what she heard from parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other disabilities: “They’d say, ‘I know my child is bright, but they’re not getting an education because they can’t talk.’” These children tended to be segregated from others, says Hart, with their behavioral and sensory issues limiting their curriculum access.
“These kids are, in a lot of cases, not getting an appropriate education in public school because there’s so much focus on controlling the behavior that they’re not getting the cognitive input they need,” Hart says.
Hart decided she had to do something, so she thought, “Why not start my own school for these kids?”
And that’s just what she did, opening the doors of Stepping Stones Homeschool to 11 students in 2013. Students’ ages run the gamut from 3 to teens—all have IEPs and the school’s curriculum is tied to the Common Core State Standards.
Focused but flexible
But (aside from the fact that it’s based in Hart’s home) Stepping Stones differs from regular school in several key ways. First, the staff-student ratio is astoundingly high: nine staff for the 11 students. Second, the instructional approach is fluid and flexible, completely based on students’ varying needs.
“So if the student doesn’t grasp the material, we revamp the material and try reintroducing it in a more fun, interesting way,” says Hart. “The point is to keep them from getting frustrated, and that often means starting with the visual, and then attaching the language.”
Another of the school’s characteristics is especially dear to Hart: Neurotypical siblings are part of the mix. Hart encourages them to join in the learning as much as they can; a few are full-time, but most come one or two days a week. They get the academic work, just like their siblings, but they also get something more—a grounding in the different brain workings of people on the spectrum.
Take siblings Frankie and Stella. Frankie, 7, is on the spectrum and his sister Stella, 9, is not. Hart and her staff are helping Stella understand ASD, and how Frankie has a different profile of strengths and weaknesses from her own: Whereas Stella is talkative, Frankie is verbally challenged, but he’s more adept with numbers than she is. To showcase his math skills, they assign Frankie to count out the cups at snack time.
“So when it comes time for someone like Stella to hire later in life, maybe she overlooks the interpersonal awkwardness and focuses on the candidate’s strength with numbers,” Hart says.
Hart and her staff also encourage non-ASD children to persevere with children on the spectrum. “Usually, if the kid with ASD doesn’t respond as expected, a typical peer gives up, and the kid with ASD feels rejected,” Hart explains. “We do stories to train both parties about how to understand each other.”
Expansion plans
It’s an experimental approach, for sure, but the feedback from parents is overwhelmingly positive, says Hart. But how, you’re likely asking, does a program like this get funded? Hart makes it work by directing parents to an Arizona special-education fund—the Empowerment Scholarship Account Program. Through this school-choice programming, now also offered in Florida, families incur no out-of-pocket costs.
The money allows Hart to keep her doors open, but she admits it’s not enough. “I’m running a Pinto program but I want it to be a Cadillac program,” she says. To help get it there, she’s done fundraising, with parents’ help—an effort she’ll need to ramp up as she looks to expand the school and move it from her home to a private site.
She’s already admitted five more students than last year for this fall.
“The work certainly challenges me,” says Hart. “But when you sit there with the kids and you really see them get it, that’s the great work. They’re doing that kindergarten math like anyone else because they can. And that’s what makes it all worth it.”
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September 2015
Volume 20, Issue 9