Dean Hall/Lakeland Times

Kim Drake shows parents and their children floor plans of the new Lakeland STAR School/Academy during an open house for the new school on Wednesday, March 28, 2018, at the Nicolet College Building on the Lakeland Union High School campus in Minocqua.
Dean Hall/Lakeland Times Kim Drake shows parents and their children floor plans of the new Lakeland STAR School/Academy during an open house for the new school on Wednesday, March 28, 2018, at the Nicolet College Building on the Lakeland Union High School campus in Minocqua.

When a child is born, parents have a vision of who that child will be as an adult. They imagine grand scenarios of watching their offspring compete as a professional athlete, or perhaps even running the country. As time passes, reality sets in and the grandiose hopes and dreams are replaced with more achievable goals. They hope their child gets good grades, goes on to college and becomes a professional of a different kind, finds love and lives a happy, independent life. 

For about 1 in 59 families, these dreams, even on a basic level, are shattered by the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Suddenly, the question of “what will my child be when they grow up” takes on a whole new meaning. Now the concerns are deeper, and parents begin to ask, “will my child make it through school, will they find someone to love them, will they ever live independently and be happy?” 

Parents of individuals on the spectrum often look at their son or daughter and wonder, “who would this child have been if they didn’t have autism?” It’s a despair that never really goes away. It just becomes an acceptance of the cards that were dealt. 

But then, as the child progresses through life, parents begin to see that the uniqueness of their offspring is not a bad thing. In fact, sometimes it’s a strength. Buried under the sensory issues and communication difficulties is a different kind of intelligence, an outside-of-the-box thinker who has much to contribute to society. It is then a parent’s focus shifts to getting the services and education their child needs to realize their full potential, to fulfill the aspirations the child possesses and foster independence and self-reliance. 

As a parent of a child with ASD, I know this scenario all too well. From the moment a clinical diagnosis confirmed what I already knew, me and my then husband Gregg Walker, were on a mission:?a journey to give our son the best chance at a happy life. Acquiring intensive in-home services, researching the best alternatives in education and health care were a priority, as the window of opportunity to help our son thrive both physically and intellectually was slowly closing. 

Although the school system does its best to give these diverse learners the education they need, we felt there was perhaps a better way, as our child, like most with ASD, learns differently. After much internet research, I stumbled upon a new school in Minnesota called Lionsgate Academy, a charter school for grades 7 through 12, specifically for students with autism. 

According to Lionsgate, their school starts at seventh grade because that is when they see a real separation in communication skill levels between those with ASD and neuro-typical children, and the vast majority of students entering their school are four years behind in social skills.

Although it was in its infancy at the time, their mission was exactly what we felt our child needed for success. As our son grew, discussions commenced around the idea of moving to where Lionsgate was located. Like many parents, we would do whatever it took to give our son a fighting chance. 

Almost four years ago, Walker decided to go to Lionsgate to investigate these alternatives for our son. 

“I was just amazed by how they were working with the system to truly give these children a chance as adults,” he said. “The kids led the open house, and the staff talked about how they tap into the strengths and the knowledge these children possess. What impressed me was how they emphasized the sensory issues within their school, which really hit home with me because it seems with less sensory issues these children can really thrive.”

On the drive home, contemplating the logistical undertaking of one of us moving to Minnesota to enroll our son in this fantastic school, as well as feeling frustrated this type of facility didn’t exist in our state, Walker had an epiphany, “I thought, why can’t we build a school like this in Wisconsin?” 

The vision

“Within the next day I called Richard Moore, who’s had several years of writing about autism under his belt and has heavily researched both the health and educational aspects of ASD,” Walker said. 

Moore’s interest was piqued immediately, and he set his course on gathering as much information as possible on autism and education. 

“As autism numbers continue to explode in Wisconsin and elsewhere, our schools are increasingly facing an educational crisis,” Moore concluded. “While some students on the spectrum can cope in a general education environment, many more simply cannot. Because they process information differently than both neurotypical students and other special-needs students, many need an autism-specific educational environment that emphasizes individual attention, allows students to make their own assignment choices within reason and specific boundaries, integrates basic independent living skills into each class goal, minimizes visual overload in the class and school environment and allows students to learn at their own pace.” 

Armed with the knowledge provided by Moore’s investigations, Walker then contacted local district administrators, Dr. James Ellis and Mr. James Bouché.

Bouché, at the time DA for Lakeland Union High School, remembers this moment like it was a turning point in history. 

“Three and a half years ago, in July, just after I took over from my predecessor, (Walker) said to me, ‘what are you doing for autistic kids? Have you ever heard about Lionsgate?’” Bouché remembered. “He told me about Lionsgate’s philosophy and where it originated. I’m listening, and at the end, I told him, ‘I was in charge of special education for nine years in Minnesota. I know what we were doing with autistic kids there, we were just warehousing them. We were basically putting them in a room, hoping for the best and just sliding them through. That’s all we could do at the time.’ When I heard about Lionsgate, from what (Walker) told me, I told him to count me in.” 

“I thought maybe there was something we could do differently that would be very advantageous for our students in Wisconsin to give choices to both students and parents,” Bouché said. “There are options for our students when they come into the high school. They can take AP classes or choose different routes towards secondary education or training for entry into the workforce. Why can’t there be choices for all students? Let’s give parents and students with Individual Education Plans a choice as well. I like the idea of having options because we all learn differently.”

Ellis, DA for Minocqua J1 School District, had a similar take on the Lionsgate model. 

“For me, it’s important that we give all kids an opportunity to learn and do what we can to make sure that special needs students have the same opportunities as regular education kids,” he stated.

Walker then called a meeting with district administrators and asked LUHS board member, Dr. Thomas Gabert to attend. 

“I told them I thought this was a worthwhile endeavor,” Walker explained. “To their credit, they saw what was going on in their own schools and thought it should be something seriously looked at.”

Walker then attended the All-Schools Board Meeting in January of 2017 and presented the idea of developing a school like Lionsgate Academy in Minocqua. He asked the board if each school would contribute $50,000 towards this new charter. The board offered positive support. 

To envision what this groundbreaking school would look like, Walker urged administrators and other interested parties to travel to Lionsgate and experience what they do first hand. Diane Halpin, Ph.D., executive director of Lionsgate Academy, was more than accommodating. 

“Lionsgate administrators and staff have single-handedly made us what we are today because of everything they’ve been willing to do for us,” Walker said. “They’re a fantastic group of people made up of parents with autistic children, and their success in Minnesota has been tremendous.” 

Moore recalls his impression of what Lionsgate and other similar schools across the nation were implementing. In addition to Lionsgate, Moore interviewed Melanie Schaffran, one of the founders of Devereux Millwood Learning Center, one of the nation’s oldest and still most successful schools for children with autism. Because the initial student population was now grown, Schaffran’s work with young adults with autism, including her own child, provided valuable insights about an approach to transitioning from school to the real world, and both Lionsgate and Millwood provided textbook examples of what can be accomplished with commitment and passion.

“These efforts are helping countless students with ASD across the nation gain confidence among their peers, unlocking the self-assurance they need to integrate socially into the larger community, while at the same time teaching them the skills that will enable them to live and work independently in those communities,” he said. “Students with autism in Wisconsin deserve no less.”

Word was spreading about this place called Lionsgate and area schools were beginning to reevaluate autism services in the area. Denise Brandenburg, special education teacher at Lac du Flambeau and parent of children with ASD, was approached by LdF superintendent Larry Ouimette, asking if she would be willing to visit Lionsgate. At the time, Brandenburg and her daughter MyKenzie were working with Eric Mikoleit in Project SEARCH, a program preparing young people with significant disabilities for success in integrated, competitive employment. 

“Larry Ouimette wanted us to see Lionsgate because he wanted our perspective as educators and my perspective as a parent.” Brandenburg said. “(Mikoleit) and I visited the open house at Lionsgate. We both left there thinking, if we were 20 years younger, this is what we would want to be doing.” 

“At first when all this came up, some of us educators were offended, thinking ‘what do you mean we are not doing it right?’ As an educator, I feel like I go above and beyond for my students,” Brandenburg said. “But the environment is crucial. We are doing the programming, but at the same time, we don’t have the programming, if you know what I mean. I don’t want parents to have to go through the feeling of missing the boat. I constantly felt like I was missing the boat with my kids.”

Ellis also recalls his first visit to Lionsgate. 

“I remember just going over to that school and seeing what they had done, and thought to myself, ‘why can’t we do that here? Why can’t we do that in Wisconsin?’” he remarked.

The roadblock

However, there was a roadblock in the way, a state law that did not allow a seventh through 12th-grade charter school to exist in a K-12 district. Because the area schools are a union K-12 district, this state law would need to be changed. 

“We thought about doing a pilot school, but the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) directed us into doing a charter,” Bouché said. “We started looking at that, and realized we had to create two charters. Because we are a union high school district and the grade schools are districts among themselves, we had to do something different. We had to get the law changed to allow the middle school kids to go right into the charter.” 

The mission to plow through red-tape began, with great determination. 

“We started lobbying, Richard Moore, myself, Jim Ellis, Jim Bouché, Larry Ouimette, Brett Jelinski, Doug McCoy and Denise Brandenburg went to Madison,” Walker said. The group commenced heavy lobbying efforts, meeting with Senators, assembly people and the Joint Finance Committee, as well as DPI. “We made probably 20 trips to Madison, with the emphasis on getting funding through the state and change the law to create a charter school.” 

Brandenburg was asked to join the team’s efforts in Madison by Ouimette. 

“They wanted a parent perspective, and I just happened to have the educator’s perspective too,” Brandenburg said. “I’ve never been part of that process before, and it was really eye-opening.” 

“Denise was phenomenal, a great speaker on behalf of autism, and she did a tremendous job down in Madison,” Walker said.

Another major player was Doug McCoy, president of Truck Country. 

“He stepped up and was fantastic at getting the connections we needed in Madison,” Walker said. “Doug has been a huge supporter of this.” 

McCoy said when he visited Lionsgate, what impressed him the most was the students themselves telling their stories and explaining what it was like in mainstream school versus Lionsgate. 

“The confidence and communication abilities of these students was striking, and that really hit me,” he said.

The battle was hard fought, and the consulting lobbyist for the group was concerned Walker’s reputation as a crusader for open records laws in Madison might impede progress. Walker, publisher of The Lakeland Times, is an avid supporter of the open records law and fought diligently to preserve it. 

“The lobbyist recommended that when we go to some of these Republican senators, I don’t speak because my reputation precedes me dealing with the open records law,” Walker said. “So, other individuals spoke, and although they had the base knowledge about autism, they didn’t have the passion. They didn’t live it. They didn’t have skin in the game. So, after the first meeting, Doug declares, ‘Look, I don’t really care about what the lobbyist says, from now on, Gregg is doing all the talking.’” 

McCoy explained his thoughts at the time. “With the best interest in the school in mind, I felt Walker had the passion and experience coming from being a parent that we needed to get our point across and get results,” he said.

Despite potential acrimonies, Walker affirmed, “the politicians were all very respectful.” 

“There may have been some animosity towards me, because of the Open Records, but I think they treated us fairly on what we’re attempting to do,” he said. “They all seem to be compassionate about autism. For example, Senator Larson said he was going to give us 20 minutes. He ended up giving us two hours.”

In the midst of lobbying for a state law change, efforts were also focused on gaining the funding through the state needed to support this ground-breaking charter school. It was at the Spring 2017 Joint Finance Committee meeting where I was summoned to join the mission to get the charter school in the state budget. I accompanied Brandenburg and Walker while they both spoke on behalf of the fledgling school. 

“Gregg and I spoke to the committee, and for both of us, it really came from the heart,” Brandenburg said. “I kind of choked up during my speech, and quite frankly, I don’t even remember what I said because I got quite emotional when telling my story.”

Despite all the trips to Madison, committee meetings and seemingly endless lobbying, Walker reports, “we never got the funding, but we did get the law to change statewide.”

The turning point

By the time the statute did change, it was mid-summer of 2017, and we were finally given the green light to build a whole new school from the ground up. 

“As the law was changed, we also knew we weren’t going to get the funding,” Walker said. “We had good momentum. In order to build a school, you have to have the right players. Different from Lionsgate, this school was going to need more public help versus private help to build it. Everybody believed the concept, but how were we going to pay for it?” 

It was around this time the school boards were asking tough questions about how this new charter school was going to be funded. Walker, a board member of the Howard Young Foundation, approached the board on creating a fundraising mechanism. 

“They took on this endeavor, and Trig Solberg, Erin Biertzer and many other individuals began to step in,” Walker explained. “They felt there was a medical need in this area.” 

Howard Young Foundation joining the effort gave the new charter school a place to house donations, as the organization was already a non-profit 501(c)(3.) This status enabled donators to fund the school and avoided the time-consuming mountain of red tape the new school would have to go through to become a non-profit in and of itself.

When the Howard Young Foundation joined the efforts, that brought Ascension in, led by Sandy Anderson, president of Howard Young Medical Center, Ascension’s Sacred Heart, Eagle River and St. Mary’s Hospitals.

“Gregg came to me and wanted to know if I would be interested in sitting on a board that had to do with educating kids on the autism spectrum. He thought it would be a natural fit to Project SEARCH,” Anderson said. “And after looking into it, I felt he was right, as the new school would focus on the student’s individuality and strengths, paralleling our mission of delivering compassionate, personalized care that pays special attention to the financially challenged and the vulnerable.”

Walker felt Howard Young Foundation and Ascension’s support “really transformed this concept into reality.” 

“We now had mechanisms in place to raise money, and the opportunity to acquire support staff like occupational and speech therapists,” he said. “All these major pieces of a big puzzle were starting to come together.” Essentially, the birth of a STAR was imminent. 

In conjunction with the law change, and the flurry of activity revolving around funding, Walker, Bouché, Ellis and Brandenburg began to reach out to parents and the community to create a governance board for the new charter school. There were informal parent meetings at the local schools and soon, a governance board was formed. 

“We needed a board, and we needed it now,” Brandenburg said. “At one meeting, those attending were asked who wanted to be on the Governance board. We all raised our hands.”

“There was overwhelming support for this school to be created,” Walker said. “More people wanted to be on the new board than governance board protocol allows.”

In the fall of 2017, the governance board became a mix of parents, business leaders and those in education. Members of the board at the time were Barry Seidel, Denise Brandenburg, Doug McCoy, Gregg Walker, Jamie Harris, Jeff Semmerling, Kristin Semmerling, Jim Bouché, Jim Ellis, Jim Larson, Nicole Hansen, Kimberly (Walker) Drake, Lenelle Scholl, Sandy Anderson, Shari Nimsgern, Stephanie Lewis-Caroselli and Stevie Radzinski. 

“We knew we had to start raising money, so we set a goal of raising $1 million in one year,” Walker said. “With the hope that although we didn’t get funding from the state, if we got the school going and showed that we could be successful, the state would take a serious look at this as the future of alternative education.”

The road to the birth of a school is much like building a plane while it’s flying. The right players were in place, and the momentum to create this ground-breaking charter school in Wisconsin for students on the autism spectrum was tremendous. Every aspect of its framework and every decision made to this point was based on one goal. To give these children the best opportunity to thrive not only in the school environment, but in the community, and graduate with the academic and life skills necessary to become their personal best. 

With the parts in place, it was now time to begin the momentous task of building the plane. An opening date was chosen, and no matter what, September 2018, less than a year from the creation of the governance board, Lakeland STAR was scheduled to take flight.

See next Friday’s Living North section for Part 2.

Kimberly Drake can be reached at