Fayetteville, North Carolina is likely not a place you’ve heard of unless you’re a native or stationed at world’s largest-by-personnel military base, Fort Bragg, located just up the road. But one Fayetteville school, The School of Hope, is at the center of things when it comes to families of children with autism.
Amy and Rob Sparks founded this school in memory of their son Jarred. Jarred was an optimist, seeing the good in everyone and everything; a competitive swimmer in the Special Olympics; and a student whose best educational fit involved incorporating behavioral therapy for autism into learning. He unexpectedly passed away at the young age of nineteen. But in his time with the Sparks, he changed their lives forever.
“He made me a better person, he taught me to be accepting of others,” says Amy. “He truly taught me to see the good in every situation, and not to take for granted the simple things in life, the things that people take for granted all the time. You see, things didn’t come easy to him. And because they didn’t, our family grew together, and he was the center of our family and the glue.”
The School of Hope does things a little differently than a traditional public school. Amy would know all about those differences – she was a teacher in traditional public schools for 30 years. But she’s learned that a different approach works best for her students here.
Says Amy, “We have a very unique process. It takes hours for me to really think about where I want a child to be placed. We don’t have grades, like this is kindergarten, this is first grade, second grade. We have plurals; it might be K through second. It might be third, fourth, and fifth. We look at their ability level, but we also look at social aspects.”
That might include students who only attend a half day of school or who take time during the school year to work on behavioral therapy. Parents in North Carolina have access to a variety of programs that offset the cost of private school choice. According to Amy, “Without the Opportunity Scholarship, the Disability Grant, and the Educational Savings Accounts program, there would be no School of Hope. Because about 95% of our students who attend here have those grants. And that’s what makes it possible.”
When I visited, I saw what Amy meant about doing things differently. She feels, like many parents of children with special needs, that it can be easy to underestimate and underserve these students’ potential to learn. She spoke about some classrooms doing little more than “babysitting” her son during a typical school day and lacking goals for his measurable education.
That’s not the story at The School of Hope. From the theme-based libraries on science and history, to the creative playroom, to the individualized lessons I saw students completing, it’s clear that the students here are being challenged and motivated to the top of their ability level.
Jarred’s desk still sits in the front office of The School of Hope. Amy explained, “My husband had that idea. We actually took the desk from his room, and we put it in the School of Hope. People asked me, “Amy, have you changed his room?” And I did not change his room for six years, until we were able to move into the School of Hope, that’s when I changed his room. It was a promise that I had to keep.”
The School of Hope is a testament to the power of keeping promises. The Sparks help parents like them ensure the promise to educate every child is fulfilled, regardless of their learning differences. And they keep Amy’s promise to herself and to Jarred to, “never let his memory be forgotten, and the stories, and the lessons that he taught me, not only as his mother, but he was a teacher.”
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