Dean Hall/Lakeland Times

Eric Mikoleit, Lakeland STAR director, is pictured at the STAR open house in March 2018.
Dean Hall/Lakeland Times Eric Mikoleit, Lakeland STAR director, is pictured at the STAR open house in March 2018.
After overcoming many obstacles, Lakeland STAR School/Academy was set to open less than a year from the creation of its governance council. A fledgling board began the process to plan and build an “airplane” designed to take a population of students with special needs to new heights. It became apparent several committees would have to be formed to divide and conquer the multitude of tasks involved in this endeavor. We needed seven committees — curriculum, budget, hiring, student recruitment, building, fundraising and public relations — and each was just as critical as the next. 

Fortunately, we had seasoned veterans on the team who brought with them the expertise needed in some areas. Some had battled through fundraising for other major organizations, and some were already in the trenches of special education. Some of us, myself included, pulled from life experience and signed up for the committees that best paralleled our skills. 

Having some construction knowledge learned through osmosis from my father, I signed on to head the building committee. Other board members pulled from their experiences as parents of children on the spectrum to lead student recruitment or join the curriculum committee, and some relied on their educational background to head the budget and hiring committees. 

Our board meetings were filled with heated discussions, massive brainstorming and delegation of urgent tasks. It was a momentous undertaking in a short period of time. We had to orchestrate fundraising, hire a specific staff, find a building to house the school and form a budget out of the unknown. Dr. Jim Ellis, DA for Minocqua J1 School District, said, “it was definitely challenging because it had not been done before.” 

And we had opposition, as according to local ASD advocate Gregg Walker, “many people in the educational system and Department of Public Instruction in Madison, as well as individuals in the community said it would never happen.” In hindsight, these people grossly underestimated the determination of a group of parents, educators and community members who had one unrelenting goal, which was to help children with special needs.

Lionsgate was our template, and without their advice, we would have been building this plane without a blueprint. 

“I think the one thing we took away from Lionsgate was don’t be too big too soon,” Ellis said. 

One of the first decisions on the docket was naming the school. For a brief time, the temporary name was Northern Wisconsin School/Academy for the Diverse Learner. Because it was a grade 7-8 as well as a 9-12, both “school” and “academy” were needed in the name, and it soon became apparent the current choice was a mouthful and difficult to remember. The board did some brainstorming and made a list of available names fitting within our vision of what this school exemplified. Lakeland was a given, as it was where this school would reside, and STAR (Strong. Talented. 

Adventurous. Remarkable.) represented where we would like to see these students — unlimited, with opportunities available to them as far reaching as the universe allows. Our mission was to cultivate self-reliance and determination in all students, so they may discover their unique potential and maximize their capabilities by providing a transition-focused, personalized education program in an environment that fosters acceptance and honors individual strengths.

Building the plane in mid-air: Finding a place STAR could call home

Without a vessel to hold this unique population of students, there would be no school, and heavy thought was put into finding a location for Lakeland STAR. This decision was immensely important, as it had to be in an area to allow for accessibility by the feeder schools. Every potential road to a building led to nowhere, and the board’s anxiety began to mount. Mr. James Bouché, who was Lakeland Union High School’s District Administrator at the time, observed something about the building next door to LUHS which housed Nicolet College. 

“I had noticed the traffic at the Nicolet Campus was progressively going down because of online learning,” he said. “While I was in a meeting at Nicolet, I brought up the occupancy of the building and was told it was as low as 13%.”

At the next governance board meeting, Bouché brought this point up, which got the board’s immediate attention. LUHS already owned the Nicolet building, the location was ideal and the structure was already set up for education. However, Nicolet had a lease, and questions arose on whether STAR could obtain the building. 

“I opened up the idea of using the exit clause in the agreement created in 1990 between LUHS and Nicolet,” Bouché recalled of a poignant moment.

And then it became a waiting game. Nicolet had to decide if they wanted to continue to use the building or could set up their programming elsewhere in Minocqua. At every STAR governance board meeting, first on the docket was, “the building update” from Bouché, and he had a captivated audience consisting of an entire board sitting on the edge of their seats waiting for word that we actually had a place to house the school. In February of 2018, after weeks of nail-biting, Bouché brought tremendous news to the table. Lakeland STAR had a building, and this plane was one step closer to getting off the ground. 

“Dr. Richard Nelson presented to the Nicolet Board the reasonings to do the transfer, which was of great assistance in making it happen,” Bouché recalled.

Who is going to fly this plane? Hiring a ‘pilot’

Simultaneously, during the quest to obtain a building, board members began the task of creating the ideal picture of what Lakeland STAR staff would need to be to serve this student body in a way that best attended to both their strengths and weaknesses. 

The first order of business was hiring a lead teacher, someone who could oversee the school and be the director of operations. A template of requirements for this position was composed and posted on several job outlets. 

Eric Mikoleit, who possesses a master of science in special education, (director of special education in progress) and holds special education and director of special education licenses, was heading up Project SEARCH at the time, a program preparing young people with significant disabilities for success in integrated, competitive employment,which was on target to have a 100% job placement rate in its students the first year. Mikoleit, because of his position at the high school, was asked to visit Lionsgate with Denise Brandenburg, special education teacher at Lac du Flambeau and parent of children with ASD, back in January 2017. 

“We went to this open house, and I was lost for words when they explained their programming, case management, full-time speech, language and occupational therapy, as well as their transitions program. There were a few times where literally my jaw hit the floor,” Mikoleit professed. “I felt we could really make a difference if we diverted from the traditional model of speech and language I was taught in my discipline. Instead of 15 to 20 minutes twice a week, we could do 60 minutes every day. If we could increase those services and start looking at their strengths and what they’re passionate about, the possibilities for these kids are endless.” 

When the position of Lakeland STAR director posted on the various job boards, Mikoleit was one of the applicants, went through the interview process and was hired. 

Advertising the remaining positions was underway through Indeed, WECAN and newspapers. 

“The concern was if we were going to find people to hire and we were surprised to find good, sound paraprofessionals,” Bouché confessed. “That makes the difference in a school such as this. Paras don’t get enough credit that they deserve.” 

“It was imperative we find the right staff, as from my own work and what Lionsgate had experienced, we knew we had to find people that had a deep understanding of autism as well as a full grasp of our mission and our vision, and that was a great challenge as we knew that we did not have a surplus of hundreds of applicants,” Mikoleit added. 

Sandy Anderson, president of Howard Young Medical Center, Ascension’s Sacred Heart, Eagle River and St. Mary’s Hospitals, was working feverishly through Ascension to bring in the needed health support staff into the mix. 

“We brought in occupational therapy, speech pathology and audiology, which wasn’t too difficult as we already had those services in the high school,” Anderson explained. “Then we brought in behavioral health, and that was a big stretch for us because there’s already a shortage of allied health professionals and recruiting behavioral health to the Northwoods is a challenge. We then had the school site certified as a behavioral health outpatient setting which was very financially advantageous for the school and the school district.” 

Paying for the airline: Fundraising at a whole new level

A serious challenge of a financial sort loomed over the visionary school, and that was how to fund it. When a child attends a charter school, the school district he or she resides under shifts the state funds for that student into the charter. The program Lakeland STAR was planning to incorporate would go above and beyond the services ordinarily provided for by the state funds. This school would give its students the hours of speech, occupational therapy and education they needed to attain their highest potential, and the set funding amounts through the state would not be enough to cover it. 

“With the type of program we want to deliver the cost is high, and anytime you have a special ed child you really don’t get additional funding for him or her,” Ellis said. So, the task at hand was to raise the funds needed to give these future students the services they needed to excel, and more importantly, succeed in whatever life path they chose as adults.

The first idea was a fundraising golf tournament in the school’s name, and this soon became the focus of the fundraising committee. Doug McCoy, president of Truck Country, brought in his public relations person, Kristin Frawley, who became the center post of a massive public relations push of not only the Golf Tournament but STAR’s website, signage and related entities. Frawley ran a tight ship and kept a lot of us on track in fundraising-related meetings and became a critical component in organizing the golf tournament and public relations efforts. 

As planning progressed the sheer number of donators was astonishing. Prize donations were extravagant and brought in people from all over the state. In the end, the Lakeland STAR Golf tournament raised $429,000, and individual contributions ranged from $5000 to $250,000. 

“I think that’s what’s great about living and working up here in the Northwoods, people are going to do what they can to help out. And now I think a lot of our families see that” Ellis said, expressing the general feeling of the board at the time.

Doug McCoy and his father Mike McCoy, former president and CEO of McCoy Group, offered the much-needed financial support instrumental in getting this plane off the ground. 

“My granddaughter is mildly autistic, and she’s going to need some special help along with so many other children affected by autism,” Mike McCoy professed. “Families never think that autism can happen to them. But it does. And guess what? We have learned so much about autism, and in a sense, have a greater appreciation of it.” 

Mike McCoy said his hope for the fledgling school is to give therapeutic help to children and young adults with autism, with the goal of helping them with their education and finding ways to make them as self-sufficient as possible. 

“The kids that attend STAR at the high school level are students of LUHS and cost the high school a total of $670,000,” Walker said, detailing the financial aspects of STAR. “We have asked them to cap it at $425,000. So now, LUHS pays $125,000 when they originally would be set to pay $670,000. We got $300,000 in state aid, which we lobbied for, and STAR is going to put $573,000 into LUHS’s budget including building costs. We brought in the PAES Lab, brought a child psychiatrist to the area, which other schools can utilize, and it all came from donated funds. The goal is not to shatter the tax base with these students.”

Curriculum: Developing a flight plan

When Mikoleit was hired, it set in motion a fury of activity and pages of tasks to accomplish in the staffing and curriculum committees. With Project SEARCH still under his lead, Mikoleit had a full docket. 

“It was probably in March or April that I knew it was going to be at warp speed for the next six months,” Mikoleit said. “We were going to have hiccups, that’s for sure, but if we could get the right team together and the right support, I knew we could get it done.”

Project SEARCH was still underway, and Mikoleit continued with his responsibility of finishing the last four months to graduation and making sure the students had employment and were moving on towards the next chapter of their lives.

“It was a lot of juggling, between Project SEARCH and the STAR School meetings,” he said. “There were some trying times, likewise with everyone involved in this undertaking. My summer was consumed by doing this and working with the governance board, administrators, collaborating with you (Kimberly Drake) on all aspects of the building remodel and other key stakeholders in the creation of this school. We all were in warp speed, with very little time for reflection or hesitation. We relied on Lionsgate for direction and worked feverishly on putting an agenda together, throwing a few ‘Hail Marys’ from time to time.” 

Mikoleit expressed great gratitude for the support team around him. 

“I had never been involved in creating a charter school, and everyone from Denise Brandenburg to Jim Ellis and those on the board were instrumental in its formation,” he said. 

The navigational system on this plane was the curriculum, and because of our mission, this sectional map had to be innovative, educational, flexible and fully customizable for each student’s individual needs. After much research and collaboration with Lionsgate, the school adopted a blend of learner and problem-centered curricula, as well as Direct Instruction and the Hidden Curriculum.

The plane comes together: Assembling the modern-day ‘Wright Flyer’

Amid this activity, there was a building to be dealt with, and in order to foster success, it would need to reflect the sensory needs of its precious cargo. Because of its undeniable achievements, the environment Lionsgate created would be the blueprint in which STAR would follow from the lighting to the floors. Every aspect of the STAR building would need to be felt and envisioned from the autistic student’s perspective, which would involve the use of sound dampening systems, sensory-friendly lighting, calming colors and plenty of sensory equipment to facilitate their needs. In addition, the building would need to be up to state code for a public structure, with the appropriate safety measures and accommodations that were required. 

Suddenly, as the building committee chairperson, I was coordinating the remodel of a school set to open in a few short months. Not only was I organizing the building of this plane while it was flying, but I was also doing so blind. I had no idea the building codes for a public structure and had to create this environment to be sensory friendly beyond the norm. When faced with decisions about everything from rough frame structure to lighting, flooring and furniture, I would ask myself, how would this best serve a student with autism? How would a child on the spectrum see or feel this through their lens of perception? 

The players on this team were Jeff Semmerling, Kristin Semmerling, Jim Bouché, Eric Mikoleit, Gregg Walker and Dave Arnold, director of Building and Grounds at Lakeland Union High School. Bouché commanded a satellite team which included Josh Maltbey, LUHS technology systems coordinator, his crew, and others. I assumed the position of “general coordinator” so to speak, and the work began on hunting down a contractor and sub-contractors that would be willing to do the remodel in the short window of time before STAR’s scheduled opening, as well as donate some of their time to this cause. 

Walker approached Dick Lee, owner of Lee Construction, who was more than willing to jump on board, despite a booked summer schedule. Some of the sub-contractors also willing to come aboard were Trapp Electric, Eagle River Cabinets, Dietrich Painting, Van Natta Plumbing, Woodruff Appliance, Action Floors and Lakeland Sign and Graphics.

The building committee meetings were focused on how to design the structure to serve the incoming students at a minimal cost. A rough design was drafted, which included four classrooms, two sensory rooms, a breakout sensory space, art room, office and independent living lab. To incorporate this plan, it would require moving lower level walls, and more extensive remodeling than previously thought, and all of it needed to meet code. 

In came Glenn Morrison, of Architecture North Ltd, who donated his time to configure the building so it was structurally sound and met state code. Morrison’s blueprints set the direction for the construction crew to follow and spring boarded the STAR project onto the state’s docket for approval. 

In conjunction with the rush to remodel, curriculum development, staff hiring and fundraising, there was the need to conduct an open house for prospective students and their parents to decide whether to enroll in STAR. With Kristin Frawley’s expertise, we were able to have a small venue at the STAR building attended by parents and community members. To their credit, parents who came to the open house were able to look beyond the empty building and make decisions based on something that was still in the planning stages of development. They put their faith in the mission and the people who were passionately creating an “aircraft” that up until now only flew in Minnesota. 

Without hesitation, parents enrolled their children. One child came to the open house because he wanted to see this new school. He was hopeful and excited, and his enthusiasm fueled the governance board’s resolve to give this, and every child, a choice in education. 

The governor visits Lionsgate

After the open house, we knew we had a full student body, and it was time to rally the support of politicians in Madison. In May of 2018, Walker, Doug McCoy, Senator Tom Tiffany, senior vice president, Ascension Healthcare/Wisconsin Ministry Market executive Bernie Sherry, and local business leader/Howard Young Board chairman Trig Solberg, flew former Governor Scott Walker over to Lionsgate to see in person the miraculous achievements this school has realized, and what Lakeland STAR would soon become. 

“The leadership at Lionsgate set up a tour for us at the facility,” Senator Tiffany recalls of the visit. “We were able to see the classrooms and visit with some of the young people that attend the school. Governor Walker and I had an opportunity to see the full program from students to teachers, as well as the facility they have to implement their program.” 

The senator’s impression of the school concurred with others who have visited.

“What was most striking to me is it’s not a traditional classroom. It has elements of a typical classroom setting, but you can tell they’re taking a different approach,” he said.

The most profound moment for the Senator was when the parents spoke. 

“The parents explained that they understood their former school did the best they could, but it’s clear to them that their children with autism needed a different approach, and Lionsgate has given them results that just weren’t there before,” Tiffany said. 

As for former Governor Scott Walker, what he saw at Lionsgate was inspiring. 

“Lionsgate school shows that all students can learn and succeed, particularly in the right environment,” he said.

See next Friday’s Living North for the final installment of this series.

Kimberly Drake can be reached at