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Note: Just Right Academy has changed its name to Hope Creek Academy as of summer 2017.

By Taylor Knopf

At Just Right Academy, there are four recesses a day, frequent activity breaks, yoga sessions and independent living classes.

That’s because it’s a school for those with developmental, emotional or behavior issues who don’t thrive in a traditional educational setting.

Just Right Academy head Linda McDonough checks in with students Wes, Demond, David, Liam and Isaac as they come in from recess. Photo credit: Taylor Knopf

‘We take a lot of kids that don’t fit other places,’ said Linda McDonough, founder and director of JRA. “They range from brilliant to struggling to tie their shoes.”

McDonough opened the academy in 2010. Today it serves 60 students kindergarten through 12th grade with a staff of 24 people in a converted church building in Durham. Currently, the student size is capped at 60 due to a special use permit, but McDonough hopes it will someday expand.

There are few schools that work specifically with special needs children who can’t fit into mainstream schools. While public schools have accommodations for students with learning challenges, it’s not always enough for kids with severe anxiety, autism or Down syndrome.

So, there is a wait list to get into the academy and a third of the families commute from outside the Triangle area for their students to attend JRA.

“No child gets up in the morning and says, ‘I’m going to make everyone’s life miserable.’ But sometimes that’s what the result is,” McDonough said. “They go to school, get in trouble, pick on other people, and have tantrums.

“It’s so easy to see mental illness as a character flaw rather than a real thing.”

JRA student Mandana Owzar, 12, has been at JRA for two years and is happier. She said kids at her old school were mean and exclusive. Mandana said she appreciates that her teachers and fellow students at JRA understand her.

“I had a couple friends at my old school, but most of them had autism like me,” she added.  “People who didn’t have autism didn’t understand me and didn’t even try.”

The birth of a school

McDonogh knows the struggle parents go through to find the right place for their child.

Years of frustrating education experiences with her own child inspired McDonough to start the school. Her adopted daughter Brianna struggles with a genetic disorder that leads to emotional and behavior issues. Her experience at every other school ended with a meltdown.

McDonough’s other daughter Molly is a teacher at JRA and said she was not surprised when her mother started a school.

“It didn’t even occur to me that that was a very unusual thing to do because my mom has spent my whole life starting nonprofits,” Molly said.

Teacher Marion Houser works with students Luke, Thomas, Gavin, and Charlie on a math lesson. Photo credit: Taylor Knopf

McDonough founded the Augustine Literacy Project, a nonprofit that helps low-income kids with reading difficulties. She’s also taught and tutored at multiple schools. She was the director of christian education at the Church of the Holy Family and served as the chair of the English Department at The Patterson School, a private boarding school with a program for people with dyslexia.

McDonough said the hardest part was logistics. Nine kids were signed up for JRA before there was a building. It grew quickly. By year five, JRA had 34 kids. The following year, 54 students.

Just Right Academy is a nonprofit private school, and the tuition is $20,000 a year. Many of the students receive a county special needs voucher for $8,000, and JRA offers additional scholarships. McDonough said there are generous JRA parents who donate to help other students.

“I get on Facebook and beg for money regularly,” she added. “That’s how we started. I asked 101 people to give me $101 and they did.”

McDonough plans to launch a social media campaign in March to gather more money for tuition scholarships.

‘People who get it’

McDonough doesn’t look for certified teachers when she’s hiring, she looks for “people who get it.”

“I can teach people how to teach, but if they don’t understand this type of kid then it’s a disaster,” she said.

Many on staff are younger, energetic, camp-counselor-type people. A lot of JRA teachers are parents or siblings of special needs kids.

Jim Harrison became a teacher assistant after his daughter spent her middle school years at JRA. She was adopted as an older child and had behavior issues in public school that led to a number of suspensions. Harrison’s daughter thrived at JRA and will soon graduate from a charter high school.

Harrison, who looks like the military veteran he is, roams the halls of JRA offering support to teachers and keeping small disruptions from becoming meltdowns. He started as a volunteer and is now full-time in his fifth year at JRA.

“I just want to help the kids in whatever way possible,” he said.

At JRA, every staff member is trained in NC Interventions, a state training program that teaches de-escalation techniques. And half the staff is trained in therapeutic holds, which occasionally are necessary.

There is a “calm and return” room if a student needs a safe place to have a time out away from other students. Students can take breaks or take a walk outside with a staff member.

Ryan gets some solo time during the school day while picking out books. Photo credit: Taylor Knopf

Class sizes are extremely small and usually have two teachers in the room.

“Being in a group can be really hard and causes a lot of anxiety for some,” McDonough said. “A lot of our kids really struggle with groups.”

JRA parent Elaine Andrews-Lanier said her 8-year-old son, Cooper, was stressed in a traditional academic setting. He would hide beneath tables and pick his fingers raw.

“I think he is way less anxious here,” Andrews-Lanier said. “He seems comfortable and calm.”

Many JRA students require one-on-one teachers for specific subjects, and the kids who are unable to verbalize their needs receive even more individual attention.

‘Small family type feeling’

Teacher Behm Williams came to JRA six years ago fresh out of college.

“I was just just looking for some work, and it turned into something a lot bigger than I expected,” he said.

Williams said that not only is it a rewarding job, JRA offers the kind of help he needed in school but never fully got. He is happy to be that assistance for other kids now.

Jim Harrison (in hat) became a teaching assistant after his daughter spent her middle school years at JRA. Photo credit: Taylor Knopf

“I found the drive to be a teacher within me working here,” he said. “Specifically at JRA, it’s the relationships you get to develop with all the different kids and coworkers. It’s a small family type feeling here.”

Students say they appreciate the intimate feel of JRA. When asked his favorite thing about his school, Daniel Sorscher, 16, said he likes “that it’s small and everyone knows everyone.”

Parents and students also say they really like the school’s point system. Students carry a paper to each class and receive check marks in three categories — Be kind. Follow directions. Stay on task. Points earn extra activity time and field trip privileges. For instance, students took a trip to DefyGravity trampoline park earlier this year.

Andrews-Lanier said she likes the positive reinforcement of the point system.

“At the other school, Cooper got lots of red dots for things that weren’t right,” she said. “Here he gets all these checks for things he does that are right.”

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Rose Hoban

Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...