Courtney Ungaro’s stepson Noah used to love the PBS kid’s show, It’s All How You Look at It. He’d walk through the house saying it over and over, requesting it so much that it became the inspiration for the tuition-free private school, Perspectives Preparatory Academy, that his parents founded. The staff at PPA desires to change the perspectives of the Springfield community and beyond about children with differing abilities while also offering support to those children.
Noah is 11, and he was diagnosed with autism when he was 18 months old. Courtney Ungaro says she and her husband saw a need in the public school system for an inclusive model after starting a summer camp for Noah and three other kids. “Two had an Individualized Education Plan, and the others were gifted,” Ungaro says. “The gains we saw with our students on an IEP were insane: increase in speech, increase in social skills, interest in other peers, willing to try new adventures. That got us thinking, could this be a model for our school?”
PPA boasts a diverse population of students, with half of those accepted qualifying for a disability through Missouri’s Child Find policy. Nacy Thornsberry, the Dean of Perspectives, says the staff wants to maintain that balance to duplicate the results of the Ungaros’ three-year camp. “Since it’s an inclusive school, we want a variety of students so they can support each other’s strengths,” Thornsberry says. “We are not a special education school; therefore, we want a diverse student population so students can learn from one another.”
Construction plans for the building include swings and trampolines for flexible seating options and opportunities for sensory engagement. These are being completed this month, and the first term begins in August. It was important to the Ungaros to create an environment that caters to a wide range of students at no cost to their families. “The No. 1 goal as a parent is to get your child an education they deserve,” Ungaro says. “You shouldn’t have to worry about how to pay for it.”
To Thornsberry, every student—regardless of their learning capabilities—has a strength to offer to the community and to the world. To foster these talents and encourage educational development, each classroom focuses on 12 students and has a co-teaching model of education. That means in any one class, there is one teacher with a general education degree and another teacher certified in special education.
PPA is also doing away with traditional grade levels, allowing its students to complete their work at their own pace. Whether a student is above or below their specific age group, they have the opportunity to develop their personal strengths this way. In her experience, Thornsberry has found that paying more attention to students on an individual basis engages them in their education. “Every student is different with unique needs, interests, likes and dislikes,” Thornsberry says. “I have seen much more success in identifying student strengths and interests to drive learning.”