By Devin Taylor
If you know anything about Spero Academy, you know that we provide year-round individualized education. You might also know that this is our second year in our beautiful, sensory-friendly space on California Street. You might even know that we haven’t always been called “Spero Academy.”
Wait. Spero Academy hasn’t always been “Spero Academy?”
It’s true! From our inception in September of 2004, Spero Academy was known as “Fraser Academy.” We were named for our original authorizer, the time-honored provider of special needs services here in Minnesota. We would remain Fraser Academy until Fraser ceased authorization of charter schools in 2015.
Some of our fifth and sixth graders have been around long enough to remember being a “Fraser Falcon.” But how much of our history do you really know? Did you know that we have been in operation for fifteen years? Did you know that we made our home in four different locations during those years?
To get the full scoop, we’ll need to hear from the members of our Spero family who have been here the longest-- and no one has been here longer than our current Director of Operations, Diane Pangal.
Whatever your ties to Spero Academy may be, if you’ve had any interaction here, you have met Diane! She has been here since the very beginning, when a little group of 67 students and 15 staff members moved into the education building at the Basilica of St. Mary’s in Loring Park. This space would serve as our home until the spring of 2008, when we moved to the Visitation Church at 4530 Lyndale Avenue.
What did Spero Academy look like in 2004?
We started small, serving students from Kindergarten through second grade. The purpose was to provide an option for families beyond preschool which would offer a model similar to the model at Fraser, which served about 60% neurotypical students and 40% students in special education. This is according to our original charter, written by three Fraser personnel: Diane Cross, CEO, Chris Bentley, Director, and Noreen Foster, who would go on to be the Special Education Coordinator of Spero (FKA Fraser) Academy.
While the original concept of the school did not center special education, Bentley projected that the unique model with its focus on individual learning and adaptive learning strategies would attract a number of students with special needs. This projection proved accurate, as did the originally projected classroom size of eighteen to twenty students. Needless to say, we had our hands full right from the start!
That first day in operation was particularly challenging, according to Diane, who began her work at Spero as a paraprofessional in the resource room:
“We were slated to have five students on that first day,” Diane recalls, “but ended up with nine or ten.”
In those days, getting records was a little trickier, and welcoming each and every student who arrived—expected or not—required some innovative problem-solving and a can-do attitude. As students were dropped-off and brought to the classroom, staff scrambled to make it work.
“We weren’t going to let it fail,” says Diane, recalling the school’s somewhat chaotic beginnings with a warmth and determination common among those who find their place in the world of special education. “In the beginning, we struggled to find answers and meet the needs of our growing population, but we were always willing to try new things.”
These struggles are inherent within the development of any small, autonomous organization. The Minnesota Association of Charter Schools (MACS) discusses the various “internal threats” that challenge the early existence of new charter schools, citing limited administrative capacity as a common obstacle. Chartering offers schools a degree of freedom, but with that freedom comes a hefty amount of responsibility. As she made the transition from classroom to administration, Diane took fixing some of the communication challenges into her own hands. This often meant making personal visits to schools all over the metro to request records for new students in person. With a little mileage and a lot of patience, the process began to run more smoothly for students, parents, and staff alike.
As time went on, advancements in technology allowed for a more streamlined enrollment process, making it easier for us to accommodate as many students as possible. This was an important change, as the focus of our program and its mission was gradually shifting.
For many years, our focus was Inclusion with the traditional idea of the “inclusive classroom” as our goal. In recent years, however, Spero Academy has changed the way we think about inclusion. From the beginning, our founders understood that inclusion didn’t mean simply placing students with special needs in classrooms with their typically developing peers. It was always our intention to provide adaptive curriculum, learning strategies, and programming tailored to the needs of the individual student. In fact, the original vision for Spero Academy focused on flexible curriculum with individual learning plans (ILP) for every enrolled student, with Individual Education Plans (IEP) for students requiring additional support.
This early ideology placed great importance on the inclusive classroom, where supplemental support could be offered onsite. The goal was to enable all students to learn together in the same classroom as their grade-level peers. While there was no target audience, it was expected that neurotypical students would constitute about 60% of enrollment. As the years went on, however, there did not seem to be a strong interest from neurotypical students.
What we did see was a strong response from families of students with autism and other developmental disabilities—an early indicator of what we would become an evident need for quality special education programming with an emphasis on personalized learning. The question then became: how do we provide inclusion while also tailoring the program to the individual needs of the students? The solution grew organically under the partnership of two teachers—Becky Brewer and Susan Scheller.
Susan Schellar is the Academic Director of Spero Academy and one of the originators behind the current model under which so many of our students succeed. In March of 2006, Scheller was just back from California with a masters degree in special education and a desire to teach in a small school setting. She took her job search online, where she found Spero (FKA Fraser) Academy:
“When I called and told [the office administrator] what I was looking for and told her I had a masters and had a current Minnesota license this is the answer I received: Can you come over now?”
Schellar was immediately hired as a substitute teacher for the duration of the school year and became the Special Education Support Teacher for first grade the following year.
In these early years of programming, Schellar and Brewer developed a system of co-teaching where Scheller would support students within the classroom. An old-fashioned cloak room served as the first “pull-out” room where personalized support was provided based on the students’ individual needs. This quaint prototype of the current model served our students’ needs from 2007 to 2009, until enrollment increased and the needs of the students began to change. Over the next two years, the program gradually evolved into what we have today.
But how did we get where we are today?
As you’ll often hear, it is unusual for a charter school to exist for as long as Spero Academy. As we delve into our sixteenth year of operation, our expertise in special education is growing all the time. The language we use is constantly shifting and evolving, and with technology changing the manner and speed of communication and the ready availability of information, it is as if our school has existed in two different eras!
What hasn’t changed is our desire to accommodate the needs of every student and family within our reach. This commitment requires a good deal of flexibility, ingenuity, and enthusiasm on the part of our staff. This flexibility and readiness to embrace change is a cornerstone of Spero’s staying-power. The willingness of our founders to examine and rethink our ways of doing things has always been with the interest of the students in mind. “Nothing was set in stone,” says Diane, “If the student population changed and we needed to adjust programming, we did!” This policy of adaptability is one of Spero Academy’s mainstays to this day.
Another feature that continues to shape the development of Spero Academy is the persistent desire to reach further. What began with a need for programming beyond preschool, became a push to provide a place for students to receive individualized education throughout their elementary school years. We expanded first to accommodate students through third grade and then added an additional grade each year.
After two years at Visitation Church, teachers and administrators began to evaluate the sustainability of the space, given the changing needs of the students and the evolving structure of the program. On July 1st of 2010, the school embarked on another move, this time to our most recent home at Grace Center (formerly Holland Elementary). This would be our home for the next eight years, and the site of immense growth and change.
One year into our tenure at Grace Center, we adopted our current Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) program. This gave rise to our STAR acronym (Safe choices, Try your best, Acceptance, Responsibility/Respect) –an important feature of our new program model and a product of our ongoing development as a special education provider.
With our focus shifting to individualized education, we began to prioritize our IEP services--moving our contracted occupational therapists and speech/language pathologists “in-house” and making them an official fixture of the school. These specialists provide individual support to students as well as group lessons in emotional regulation and social language skills. These activities also provide excellent on-the-job learning opportunities for classroom staff while supplementing the student academic experience with important social and emotional development. This advancement in both student and staff development would prove essential in the face of significant changes that were just around the corner.
The 2014-2015 school year marked a highly transitional time in Spero history, following the retirement and departure of our former director in December of 2014. Like any major transition, it meant stepping back and taking stock of where we were and where we needed to go. And where we were was not quite where we’d planned. Despite our many individual success stories, we had not seen the overall growth that was originally envisioned. What could we do to increase our enrollment while still delivering on our promises of small class sizes and personalized support?
It was at this time that our current director, Chipp Windham, came onboard with a background in leadership, a desire to see the school grow into a more expansive version of itself, and a firm belief in its potential. Over the next five years, he would lead, under the guidance of the school board, with a new vision for Spero Academy. The purpose of Spero Academy, according to Windham, would be “to become a 21st century learning center, with an integrated academic curriculum and a social learning curriculum with supportive therapeutic services.”
Over the next few years, our numbers gradually increased. We adapted the rhetoric of our mission statement to more accurately reflect our focus on personalized learning support. Programming expanded to include things like Social Skills, Zones of Regulation, S.M.A.R.T, and the Achieve program. Students thrived under this model and as enrollment and staffing needs increased, we found ourselves rapidly outgrowing our little home at 1534 6th street.
But where to go next?
It was not a decision to be made lightly. All possibilities were carefully considered. We could look into leasing a larger space that would hopefully accommodate the evolving needs of the program, or we could look into procuring a space of our own.
Minnesota’s Charter School Law prohibits charter schools from using public funds to purchase land or to build a facility of their own (MN Statutes 124.D 11, Subdivision 7). But the 2009 amendment to that law provides options for successful and long-standing charter schools to purchase, renovate, or build a space using an affiliated building company. Having met our eight-year milestone in September of 2012, and meeting other criteria for projected growth and financial stability, we were candidates for building our very own building-- one designed specifically to meet the needs of our students!
Of course, the reasons behind the law are more than fiscally motivated. According to the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools (MACS), the purpose of charter schools is:
“to be labs for innovative methodologies, forms of measurements, assessments, and accountability, and professional opportunities for educators… creating new and different learning opportunities.”
The concern is that the burden of building ownership may pose a distraction or impediment to this purpose. But now, in our second year of building ownership, it is fair to say that Spero Academy remains diligent in this purpose. Already our programs are evolving and expanding again.
With the increase in physical space, we are able to devote more program space to critical initiatives like behavior support. Our new behavior support model, offers further opportunity for staff development, as well as direct onsite support to staff and students. Instead of the traditional model, which often removed students from the classroom to receive support, our behavior support specialist works with classroom staff to address students’ individual needs onsite. This decreases the disruption to the students’ day, while providing helpful direction to support staff as well.
In addition to providing experiential learning opportunities, Spero Academy invests in the education and development of professional staff. Six of our current classroom teachers got their start as paraprofessionals right here at Spero, and all six of our teaching assistants were paras here too!
The past success of our teacher mentor program and growing attention to the complexity and importance of paraprofessional work led to this year’s launch of our new Para Mentor program. Led by a lead para and eight para mentors, this program provides crucial on-the-job support to new classroom staff. It also gives seasoned paraprofessionals an opportunity to advance in their own careers—because Spero Academy isn’t just a great place to learn; it’s a great place to work. The positive energy in the school is infectious. The optimism and earnest goodwill of teachers, administrators, and specialists radiates throughout the building like the natural light that streams through our many windows.
“Over the years I have felt very fortunate to be in a place like Spero Academy,” says Suasan Scheller, “I am excited to see what the next years will bring!”
And what will these next years bring?
As Diane said, nothing is set in stone. Our students and their individual needs will surely continue to change and our programming will grow right along with them. Our strategic five year plan outlines steps to perfect our current programming in order to replicate it in other locations, thereby reaching more students, families, and communities. There is a strong push to develop Spero’s art therapy program.
There has even been talk of expansion to include middle school or preschool programming.
Only time will tell what’s in store for Spero Academy. As an established provider of individualized education and a burgeoning center of excellence, we like to think that we are ready for anything! One thing we know that the coming years will bring? Hope. It’s right there in our name--
Dum Spiro, Spero-- While I breathe, I hope.
 Piccolo, Eugene. “A Reflection on Challenges for Minnesota’s Charter School Movement.” Minnesota Association of Charter Schools. 2014. PDF file.
 Best, Eric. “Spero Academy opens new school in Northeast.” The Journal. August, 2018. Web.
 “Charter School Facilities in Minnesota - A Primer.” Minnesota Association of Charter Schools. 2011. PDF file.