.Meeting Students Where They Are

East Bay schools offer neurodiverse kids places to thrive

The term “neurodivergent” encompasses autism, ADD/ADHD, non-verbal learning disorder (NLD), sensory processing disorder and other brain differences. Parents of neurodivergent children are always looking for a welcoming and supportive educational environment for their kids. Fortunately, the East Bay offers a number of schools that foster that environment. The following are a few of them.

Big Minds Unschool

Educator Dr. Melanie Hayes became the mother of twins who were assessed as “twice exceptional”—they were both gifted and neurodivergent—known as “2e” in the growing community of parents of kids with similar assessments. “Dr. Hayes struggled to find appropriate support that focused on strengths, not deficits,” said Rianna Bensing, executive director of the school Hayes founded in 2015, Big Minds Unschool.

Big Minds was first a “lab school” in Hayes’ home. With increasing success and parental inquiries, it moved to a building in Pinole. A second campus eventually opened in Pleasanton, with both serving students in grades K-8. The Big Minds’ founding statement is: “Students deserve a school that meets them where they are.” 

The admission process is careful, said Bensing, ensuring school and student are the right fit. “We ask, ‘What has your student struggled with? What are they strong in?’” An intake appointment and first walk-through are followed by Big Minds staff meeting the child, then by a shadow week at the school. If this is successful, a 90-day enrollment follows, with baseline assessments, before the student is fully enrolled for a whole year.

Big Minds has a flexible start time, small class sizes and a “focus on what students are passionate about,” from art to computer science, said Bensing. “We teach them to know what their disability is, how to mitigate it, but also how to be self-advocates,” she continued. Parents are supported with once-a-month Zoom meetings, parents’ information nights on current research and ongoing family consultations. “Our kids are not less than,” she noted. 

Big Minds Unschool, 510-630-2541, bigmindsunschool.org.

The Berkeley School

The two campuses of The Berkeley School don’t educate only neurodivergent students. But head of school Mitch Bostian, himself the parent of a neurodivergent child, emphasized that small class sizes, strong assessment practices and focus on “identifying” as opposed to “labeling,” can make the school a good choice for some pre-K-to-middle-school kids.

“We want to know everything about your child you want to tell us,” Bostian said. Post-application, a visit is arranged with parents, student and the student engagement team, which includes academic learning specialists, social/emotional learning specialists, an executive functioning coach and a counselor. This leads to a decision about school and student fit.

The school began as a Montessori school. “Maria Montessori taught children deemed ‘uneducationable’ by the Italian government,” said Bostian. Though it retains some basics of Montessori’s system, such as “follow the child,” it also incorporates brain-based science that has emerged since her time.

Bostian gave a composite example of a student success story. “A student at the early childhood education campus comes in with an autism diagnosis. They start with a classroom aide, and a strong partnership is formed,” he said. Eventually, in future grades, the aide becomes unnecessary, and the student goes on to do well in high school and beyond.

The Berkeley School students learn to talk about their neurodiversity. “Agency is an antidote to shame,” said Bostian. “The fact that these pathways exist at our school says something about how we operationalize our intentions.”

The Berkeley School, Early Education Campus 510-849-8340, K-8 Campus 510-665-8800, theberkeleyschool.org.

Orion Academy

Early in the ’90s, Dr. Kathryn Stewart realized that adolescents with NLD and autism needed a more comprehensive program than the weekly outpatient treatment she was providing. The need for an educational program for bright, academically gifted kids with neurocognitive disorders was obvious.

Eventually, Stewart was able to partner with funders. Orion Academy opened in September 2000. The maximum 60-student high school’s admission procedure requires that students have a current assessment. When parents contact the school, “We first ask, ‘Why Orion?’” said Stewart. Once the application is submitted, parent and student are invited for a private visit, then a half-day shadow visit, before a final determination about fit.

Orion offers college-prep classes, social skills groups and required “panel projects,” in which students set a goal, create a project, then present it several times a year to the whole school, including taking questions. “We don’t do ‘special-ed’ grading,” Stewart said.

The school’s parent network is often used in finding internships for students, which have included those at NASA and Cal, as well as in law offices and theater arts programs. Required parent community meetings facilitate networking, and the school has a Parent/Teacher Organization (PTO) that creates events and supports ongoing programs. “Our parents are often as stressed as their kids. The PTO is like-minded individuals who help each other,” Stewart said.

An example of student success was a boy who came to Orion after an incident at a public school that would usually have disqualified him from admission. But on hearing the circumstances, and meeting the student, Stewart accepted him. “He was a great kid. This was a provoked, isolated incident. He’s gone on to graduate from UC, and is doing graduate work at Stanford,” she said. 

Orion Academy, 925-377-0789, orionacademy.org.

Outside School

Each day at Outside School develops by itself. Master teacher Heather Taylor founded Outside School after working as a preschool, then elementary school teacher, acquiring experience with the “forest school” philosophy. She believes outside learning can give some neurodivergent children, especially those with high-functioning autism, ADHD or sensory processing disorder, a “better foundation, one not too loud, not artificially lit, with too many distractions.”

Her materials state: “I find out what my students’ needs are, meet them there, and teach to what they need the most, whether that’s any combination in terms of their sociaI, cognitive, or physical development, and constantly change to address new things that come up.” Parent, teacher and child operate as a team.

Outside School serves kids in grades K-12, with a variety of options, including the regular Tuesday-Thursday 9am–3pm classes, summer camps and alternatives for kids who can only attend one day a week, or one month only. Class size is a maximum of eight. Everyone meets in the parking lot of Richmond’s Alvarado Park. Hiking and playing lasts until 10am, and then there’s snack/storybook time. The kids observe the abundant wildlife of the park. Adventuring continues until lunch at noon, with more stories, and, for the older kids, journaling.

“If a child wants to run far and fast, they can. If they want to hide and camouflage for an hour, there’s space for that,” Taylor said. Neurodiverse kids find the time to make friends. Opportunities exist to enroll students partway through each course, and Taylor allows a trial period to see if Outside School is a fit.

Outside School, teachoutside.org/outside-school.

Spectrum Center

Oakland’s Spectrum Center serves students in grades K-12 with a referral from a public school district. Students must already have an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP). Spectrum materials state:

“Our classrooms are tailored to individualized needs and ensure independence in academic, behavioral, communication, therapeutic and transition services…our comprehensive add-on services offerings including autism services, behavior support services and transition services, [and] an enhanced educational program.”

Spectrum Center, 510-729-6384, spectrumschools.com/location/camden.


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