DURHAM — Rooted in a desire to educate special-needs students, the Just Right Academy is beginning to bear fruit after three years of steady growth.
The nonprofit, private school has grown from nine to 30 students, will graduate its first high school senior next year and has a waiting list, director Linda McDonough said. Over time, it could enroll up to 50 students, but it will have to find a bigger space than the former church they’ve been renting on Murphy School Road, she said.
The church, built in 1923, has been many things over time – including a nightclub – but the aging septic system and well weren’t built to handle many people, and space is cramped. A silent auction Saturday will raise money for a new location and income-based scholarships, she said.
Parents pay nearly $19,000 a year in tuition and fees to bring their children from seven Triangle area counties and as far away as Fayetteville. The needs range from autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to mental illness, learning disabilities and behavioral issues.
Many students with special needs don’t look physically different, but they may have social or academic quirks that make public school difficult, McDonough said. In some cases, the school doesn’t recognize their disability or assigns them to remedial classes. That can frustrate otherwise intelligent students and make their behavioral problems worse, she said.
The former public and private schoolteacher specializes in dyslexic and autistic education. McDonough is also among a few staff members who are parents of children with special needs; her daughter is unable to attend school.
“Every single child here has severe anxiety. Sometimes it turns outward and sometimes it turns in, and if they can’t get some of their problems under control, then there’s just not much ahead for them,” she said.
Just Right Academy classes are flexible, personal and low stress. Students of different ages work together, roughly three to a teacher, on lessons that emphasize social skills and multisensory experiences, from working with computers to visiting the Eno River to learn about ecology.
There’s no homework until high school, when students follow the state’s Standard Course of Study. Students only take tests once or twice a year.
Students earn points for participation and good behavior, and also are encouraged to learn self-control, alerting their teacher with a colored chip if they start to feel anxious or are having problems. Special quiet zones let them cocoon in a pop-up tent, put on oversize, noise-reducing headphones or play with a box of “fidgets” until they feel better. There are shelves of thrift-store books and big comfy chairs.
A midmorning “movement break” to jump rope, play kickball or just have fun also helps to work out some of the anxiety and hyperactivity.
McDonough said the dozen or so teachers and staff members and their dedicated parents are key to Just Right Academy’s success. She advises new teachers to first throw out everything they’ve learned about teaching. Then, lose the ego.
“What works in a public school perfectly well just does not work with these kids,” she said. “It’s very much a dance. And a lot of times, if a child is struggling, a teacher has to be able to walk away and let someone else step in.”