Lifestyle

New private school focuses on precision learning

Alison Moors lives for education. It’s what she does. It’s her passion. It’s her life. And she can’t get enough of it.

“This is what I was put on this earth for,” Moors said candidly.

Equipped with an undergraduate degree in elementary education and a master’s in educational psychology, the sprightly young woman has already achieved her dream — to begin her own school — and is on to the next project.

This fall, Moors will launch the Academy for Precision Learning (APL), an independent, inclusion-based elementary school for students of all abilities, on Mercer Island.

Unique to the Island, APL offers precision teaching and individualized instruction for all types of learners, from gifted students to those with behavioral problems, and places a primary focus on children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Moors said.

“Most private schools cater to the gifted or kids with ADHD [Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder],” said Moors. “So I’ve always wanted to adopt a program that accepts all types of kids.”

Just as important as diversity, Moors pointed out, APL encourages acceptance, tolerance, and community building.

“The thing I want this school to become known for is its community building, tolerance training and character building,” the founder said. “We do a lot of friendship training and games. After a while the kids don’t even want the awards — they simply like being a good friend.”

When it comes to character building, Moors added, the teachers are what counts. “Adults are the ones who teach kids how to react in uncomfortable social situations. I only hire positive, high-energy people who can provide a model for our kids so we end up with really good citizens.”

In a class of roughly 16 students, Moors will employ one certified teacher and three paraprofessionals. Children with extreme special needs, however, are placed with four paraprofessionals.

Although she’s worked mostly with autistic children, Moors has more than a decade of experience in precision teaching with all types of learners. The methodology behind this form of education, she explained, derives from “empirically validated studies.” Teachers track each student’s daily performance and develop intervention strategies accordingly.

Of course, such specialized teaching comes at a cost. Annual tuition for APL is set at $14,200 for general education students and as much as $36,000 for children with autism. Yet scholarships and financial aid is available.

“We provide scholarships for kids with autism, and Microsoft insurance benefits also go toward tuition,” she said.

Moors emphasized that for many parents with autistic children, the educational benefits are well worth the price.

“Incidents of autism are one in 100 these days, and the divorce rate among parents is up to 80 percent. They’re exhausted — it’s a 24/7 job, so parents want a school where their child can receive the best educational attention possible.”

Yet Moors was quick to add that APL does not prioritize children with learning disabilities. In fact, the school has put more energy into enrolling students without special needs.

“We’re trying to attract general education students as social models. We want a mixed classroom, and to rotate the kids fluidly between general teachers and paraprofessionals. It’s basically this well-oiled team.”

So far, three children have registered to begin classes this September, although Moors is confident the number will grow over the next two months. APL has already begun its summer school program, with 14 kids attending. And although the private school is located on Mercer Island in the basement of Herzl-Ner Tamid, APL welcomes students from all areas.

“We’re not catering to Mercer Island. We’re simply providing an [educational] option for any parent,” she said, and then paused a moment to add: “But I know that Mercer Island has an extremely high-stakes school district, so APL is one more choice.”

The only comparable school on the Island — although Lakeridge Elementary has an autism integration program — is the Children’s Institute for Learning Differences (CHILD), which focuses on students with learning difficulties and emotional regulation challenges. The school will celebrate its 30th anniversary this fall.

Upon learning of APL’s opening, CHILD director Trina Westerlund welcomed the news.

In particular, Westerlund was happy to hear that APL specializes in educating children with autism.

“There’s been such a wave of children with autism. School districts are inundated with these kids, and private schools as well,” she said. “There aren’t enough [educational] services that are really good. They’re needed everywhere.”

Growing enrollment at CHILD reflects this trend. According to Westerlund, who wasn’t concerned about competition form APL, the school receives “very healthy” referral numbers — some 30 to 50 new families a month.

“The reason our children do well here is because it’s small and intimate,” she said.

And like Academy for Precision Learning, the teachers at CHILD focus on building a community.

Promoting friendship and tolerance, Moors and Westerlund agree, is just as important as giving children — gifted or challenged — a superb education.

“As an educator, you’re always hoping to collaborate with talented people,” Westerlund said. “Given that APL is a solid program, it would be very welcome.”

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