By: Barb Evans
Not every child fares well in a traditional school setting; some may need a little more assistance in finding the right key to unlock their learning potential. This search may take parents on a challenging journey through numerous specialists, individual learning plans (IEPs) and schools before finding the right fit. Such was the case for the McNeill family.
The McNeill’s 8-year-old son, Josh, was diagnosed with high-functioning autism. With his condition, he has a hard time staying focused and interacting with his peers. These challenges make it difficult for him to learn like other students, as he sometimes responds to difficult situations with emotional outbursts.
“He gets anxious with over stimulation,” explains Kelly, “or will get over-animated. He will also shut down if he’s not getting the right stimulation.”
Knowing Josh’s special challenges, the McNeills feverishly searched for an appropriate educational environment, but quickly became frustrated. After trying two different schools, they learned about Breakthrough Academy, a small private day school that caters to students with individualized needs. They enrolled Josh earlier this year, and so far, they are extremely happy with the changes they’ve seen in their son.
“First and foremost,” says Kelly, “he is learning something. He is reading and has developed an ability to focus. I never thought I would see him so engaged! Now, we can actually sit through a movie together. This school has been great because the teachers understand his needs, whereas the other schools didn’t have a willingness to learn what his needs were.”
Breakthrough Academy was founded in 2012 by Kristina Blackledge, a family therapist turned parent advocate, who went through her own challenges when searching for appropriate educational opportunities for her four kids, who are diagnosed with ADHD, Bipolar, Autism, PANDAS and Dyslexia between them. The non-profit K-8 school is located within Ridgeline Academy in north Phoenix, and applies a multisensory and social cognitive curriculum based on the Common Core state standards. According to Blackledge, most students at Breakthrough have been diagnosed on the autism spectrum, but any kind of unique learner will benefit from the school’s individualized approach.
“We are an option for children who need a smaller, quieter setting and individualized attention when learning,” she says. “It’s most appropriate for students who have learning disabilities like dyslexia, or who have anxiety, depression, sensory needs or behavior challenges. We help students with any kind of challenge that makes it difficult for them to learn in a traditional classroom environment.”
Classes at Breakthrough are multi-age, so students are able to progress at their own rate. Learning is hands-on, and some students can take integrated classes like art and music with other students from Ridgeline, to further assist with their social education.
“That was the thing that compelled us to go here,” says Kelly, “the immersion of a school within a school. It was imperative to us so Josh could learn the social cues he needs to successfully interact with his peers.”
Weekly professional development meetings keep the staff at Breakthrough up-to date with the latest educational methods needed to help their students.
“We re-invest in our staff,” says Blackledge. “We also offer a tuition assistance program for our teachers so they can continue with their education.”
Blackledge is looking to start a high-school program next year that would focus on career development with an emphasis on social thinking, so students could become independent upon graduation.
“So many times, children with these unique needs become underemployed when they’re adults,” says Blackledge. “My passion is to help these kids be understood so they can effectively learn and become independent.”
Tuition for Breakthrough Academy ranges from $14,000 to $24,000 per year, based on the student’s needs, which is determined after the enrollment process. Open enrollment is year-round. For more information on services provided or to schedule a tour, visit azbreakthroughacademy.org or call 602-402-9510.