April 16th, 2021
LETTER FROM DIRECTOR and FOUNDER
This is one of the most difficult communications I have ever had to write. In 2007, I had a vision for a special school for children with physical and learning impairments and after 2 years and many struggles, my wife and I were able to open The Academy of Ability in August of 2009 with a meager enrollment of 6 students. The AoA has thrived for 12 school years. During this time, I have cared for and helped the students grow and participate in school and life to the fullest extent of my energy, health, resources, and abilities as they were my own. The school, my family, and my amazing staff have been the author of so much learning and more importantly in helping these precious children live life to the fullest.
Over the last several years, many students enrolled have inched closer and closer to the age of limitation for the McKay Scholarship. We have been aware for some time that a large portion of our students were “aging out”, and I attempted to contact governmental agencies about funding to extend our program beyond the age of 22. Unfortunately, I could not find any funding source or agencies that could offer help to continue in our program nor have any parents of students who have previously aged out.
With that said, the enrollment has plummeted with the number of students who no longer qualify for McKay or Gardiner Scholarship. This catastrophic decline in enrollment, after the most recent board meeting, has been determined to make operations unsustainable. After much discussion, the board has identified the lack of adequate new enrollment to be directly attributable to the effect of COVID and due to continued difficulty with transporting students to our program.
I have made great effort to provide such transportation, but the costs are increasingly prohibitive and are NOT included in the funding that is provided for McKay Scholarships. Districts receive both state and federal money specifically for transportation and the McKay money is sent directly to the schools intended exclusively for the services to the students not for rent, transportation, or insurance. With that said, the AoA can no longer provide transportation and there is expected additional decline in enrollment as a result. Over the years many, many prospective students and families were unable to attend due to the transportation dilemma, many students who do receive transportation do not attend if for some reason we are unable to provide it.
Despite numerous efforts such as completing government grants, meeting with various charitable agencies, and discussions with the local public transportation agency, no sustainable solution was found. Our application for a 5310 grant was not even considered because the reviewing committee inexplicably excluded our organization as they errantly considered us a charter school. I have contacted mobility services director for Access Lynx numerous times to discuss our unique issue, but they have never offered a viable solution.
To help our families with children aging out, I explored the option of starting an adult day care facility, but the zoning of our current location makes that impermissible and even if we were in a location to do so, the approval of this program would require extended period of time and many of our students would be on the waiting list for the services through the Med Waivers program. This was further complicated last summer when everything was shut down due to COVID and contacting agencies was nearly impossible. Additionally, all efforts of the school were focused on rebuilding the school to allow for students to return safely in the face of continued COVID risk.
Several issues regarding operations of the school were raised and extensively discussed as it relates to viability and continued operation of the school beyond the issue with enrollment. Though our school serves students who are in the most need of help, we have had inconsistent charitable or volunteer support from the community. Our doors were always open to such support, but consistent help outside of the foster grandparent program never materialized.
Operationally, though participating in interactive video learning makes us compliant with regulations, it does not provide the type of stimulation that is the mission of our school. Currently , there are escalating cases of COVID in other states within the US and several other countries are experiencing increases in the incidence of COVID resulting additional lock downs. The board agreed that the eventuality of another shut down is likely which would force us again to rely on the digital platform. The board had determined this medium is not an effective method to educate our students who need extensive facilitation to participate and advance. Consistency in compliance with attendance through the online video platform has also been a regular issue.
As the students have continued to grow, the care for students has become an increasing challenge. Some students require 3 staff members for changing due to their size, our current facilities, and behavioral considerations. With the frequency of care required, a significant overhaul of the care stations is necessary which is not viable due to cost and the fact that it is a significant improvement to leased property that does not have zoning conducive for expansion of the program to meet our changing population.
Fiscal considerations were also discussed. With a budget that is already strained, the impending significant increase in labor costs also puts into question the sustainability of our program. The students we serve require substantially lower ratio of staff to students than any other school, so increased labor costs have a profound effect. Additionally, the state relies on tourist revenue which has been decimated in the face of COVID-19. The education budget will be affected in the coming years. The scholarship funding amounts can be expected to be reduced in the face of this statewide revenue issue, a situation which we have already experienced in the past.
It is with a heavy heart that I share this information, but through much deliberation of the aforementioned factors as well as other additional contributing factors, the Academy of Ability will close at the end of the 2020-21 school year. In discussions with the school choice office, the regional manager has shared the many McKay schools have had to close operations due to the effects of the COVID pandemic.
Please understand that this decision is not being made lightly. During the board discussion, I was intermittently unable to communicate due to tearfulness because this has been our life’s work It has been our great honor to have served these amazing children and we will miss each and every child profoundly. We would like to thank the families for trusting in us with that which is most precious and our staff for their exceptional work throughout the years. We will ever be thankful for thirteen years of amazing life changing experiences.
Parents of students who are aging out should contact the Agency for Persons with Disabilities to discuss options for programs and care available for your child. Students who still qualify for the McKay or Gardiner will remain in the program and can enroll in another McKay School, a Charter School, or a public school. For questions regarding scholarships, you can call the school choice hotline.
William Harris, Founder and Director
The Academy of Ability