Walnut Academy Provides Alternative Education For Neurodivergent Students | Arts + Culture

Just west of Orange Street, tucked away in the suburb of Missoula, is a three bedroom house unlike any other. In the living room there is an orange shag rug and a fireplace. A baby blue kitchen has a fridge covered in drawings and collages, stocked with food and snacks. At the back, a garage has an open space perfect for stretching and dancing. The Walnut Academy, however, is not a home at all, but a fully functioning school, pioneering a new type of alternative education.

In Missoula, a new type of school is emerging. Walnut Academy, on Walnut and Sixth Street, is completing its first semester for the four neurodivergent students enrolled, and it has been a huge success.

The academy was created by Gail and Tom Bourguignon, chairmen of the school’s nonprofit board of directors. Gail studied counsel and law at Northern Arizona University and Michigan State University, respectively, and is now a permanent master of the Fourth Judicial Court of Missoula.

“The idea is that we want to provide an educational opportunity for children for whom traditional classrooms don’t work well,” said Gail.

The concept began in the heart of the Burgundians. They realized that their 14-year-old son, who is autistic, was not learning to his full potential in public school and wanted to learn in a way that suited his needs.

At the start of the pandemic, their friends organized a ‘tent school’ for kids who couldn’t take online classes and this alternative learning idea sparked the outlines of their academy now.

Today, Walnut Academy has four students, ages 11 to 15, and two teachers, Shane Rooney and Kyle Verhovshek, both of whom have experience working with neurodivergent children and working in the public school system.

Although not an officially accredited institution, Walnut has partnered with other accredited schools, eNDVR and Aspire Middle and High School, which have agreed to give students who complete their studies at Walnut official diplomas.

The class runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and welcomes students from other schools to join them from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. flows into the establishment.

“We don’t have a product that we sort of offer to sell to families,” Gail said. “Families own this process and the school just as much as we do. They guide everything from policy making to choices about what students want to do, and everything is student-driven.

“I worked in public schools on and off for about 10 years,” Verhovshek said. “While I feel like there are a lot of amazing people working in the public school system and a lot of amazing students too, in Walnut the kids are thriving. Our children are becoming themselves here. They are not put inside boxes inside boxes inside boxes.

The Walnut families meet at least once a month, on a Wednesday, to discuss how things have gone and to decide what they might want to focus on for the coming month. Ultimately, however, it depends on the students.

“One day looks like anything [the students] want it to look like, ”Verhovshek said. “The general day feels like an individualized exploration, and whatever support we can give them to make it happen so that they can achieve their personal dreams.”

In addition to reading, comprehension and math lessons, some common activities that make up the week are going to the library and parks, swimming at Currents Aquatic Center, biking to FreeCycles, walking to Orange Street Food Farm (where students shop for groceries and cook for their lunches) and exploring local religious institutions and the cultures found there.

Caireny Abbe is the mother of a 15-year-old boy, born prematurely after just 24 weeks. Due to related conditions, Abbe’s son struggled to follow the teaching methods of the public school system. When she heard about the academy, Abbe joined her during her training process.

“I was a little skeptical before I started,” said Abbe. “I didn’t know what to expect. I feel like [my son] is actually to socialize more, rather than sitting in the classroom all day doing paperwork. They are really creative with them… He has so much confidence in himself after only three months in school.

Over time, teachers hope that the academy will establish itself more in the community rather than just growing in number.

“My hope is not necessarily centered on growth,” said Verhovshek. “We have four children. We would love more, but the growth in my mind doesn’t look like a bigger walnut tree. Looks like a more complete child. As a more complete community… I hope we can find more children who need them because I know they are there right now.


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