Northeast Times

Big Plans

A North­east couple’s dream is about to come true — start­ing a charter school for aut­ist­ic chil­dren. It’ll soon open in the old Lower Dub­lin Academy.

(from left) Dani­elle Stella-Schall, Fred Moore, Lisa Greco, Dave Butkiewicz, Elsie Stevens, Bar­bara Butkiewwicz, and Pat Betz stand out­side of the Lower Dub­lin Academy build­ing that will be­come the Aut­ist­ic En­deavors Learn­ing Cen­ter.

Ta­cony’s Dave and Bar­bara Butkiewicz have been work­ing for more than four years to open a school for aut­ist­ic chil­dren.

The couple, who live on Barnett Street, have two sons, in­clud­ing a 10-year-old with aut­ism, a de­vel­op­ment­al dis­order char­ac­ter­ized by im­paired so­cial in­ter­ac­tion and dif­fi­culties in com­mu­nic­at­ing. The Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion es­tim­ate that nine in 1,000 Amer­ic­an chil­dren have an aut­ism spec­trum dis­order.

Bri­an Butkiewicz was dia­gnosed at age 2. He re­ceived ex­cel­lent in­struc­tion provided by El­wyn, a non-profit hu­man-ser­vices or­gan­iz­a­tion in Delaware County.

Typ­ic­ally, chil­dren ages 3 to 6 re­ceive early-in­ter­ven­tion edu­ca­tion be­fore mov­ing on to an aut­ist­ic-sup­port classroom in a pub­lic school. The Butkiewiczes, though, be­lieve that one-on-one in­struc­tion is prefer­able. Bar­bara Butkiewicz is home-school­ing her son as part of a cy­ber charter school. Bri­an just com­pleted second grade.

“Aut­ist­ic chil­dren need the Rolls Royce of edu­ca­tion,” said Dave Butkiewicz, adding that stat­ist­ics show more than 2,000 stu­dents in Phil­adelphia pub­lic schools have been dia­gnosed with aut­ism. “But it costs a lot of money, and par­ents can’t af­ford it.”

In 2007, as Bri­an was end­ing his days with El­wyn, his par­ents foun­ded the Aut­ist­ic En­deavors Charter School, with the motto, “Put­ting the puzzle to­geth­er one piece at a time.” They dreamed of a tu­ition-free, aut­ist­ic-sup­port school that provides one-on-one at­ten­tion.

Ini­tially, they eyed a va­cant pub­lic-school build­ing in Frank­ford, They held a beef-and-beer fund-raiser at the old Marsico, with then-NBC 10 news an­chor­man Larry Mendte as the guest speak­er, but the build­ing was too costly to ren­ov­ate.

Later, they in­quired about va­cant build­ings at St. An­selm, but didn’t have the funds, and St. Bern­ard, but were out­bid.

HOME SWEET HOME

Fi­nally, the couple found a home for their school. Earli­er this month they went to set­tle­ment on the former Lower Dub­lin Academy, at 3322 Wil­lits Road. It’s a three-floor build­ing that in­cludes a base­ment.

The cost is $299,999, and massive renov­a­tions are needed be­cause of a 2006 ar­son fire. Loc­al build­ing trades uni­ons have offered to com­plete the re­con­struc­tion.

Early plans call for 25 chil­dren in kinder­garten through eighth grade to be edu­cated in five classrooms. The stu­dent-teach­er ra­tio will be 1 to 1, and the learn­ing would be year round.

Learn­ing for high-school-age chil­dren will come in the near fu­ture. Renov­a­tions should start in the fall, with a pos­sible open­ing in May 2012. There is also a gar­age on site.

“We’re really ex­cited,” Dave Butkiewicz said. “We have to get the doors open. We have to get the kids ser­vice. There are so many kids with aut­ism.”

Al­most as ex­cited as the Butkiewiczes is the Friends of Lower Dub­lin Academy. The prop­erty once housed a one-room log cab­in school­house, built in 1723. By 1798, the ex­ist­ing struc­ture was built, and Lower Dub­lin Academy was opened. It edu­cated, among oth­ers, fu­ture mil­it­ary hero Steph­en Dec­atur.

Later, the build­ing was bought by the School Dis­trict of Phil­adelphia and re­mained open un­til 1925. From about 1940-90, it served as a private res­id­ence, then was bought by a de­veloper.

In 1993, a group of Holy Fam­ily Uni­versity stu­dents ren­ted the house for a year. A fire­works dis­play on Ju­ly 4, 1994 caused a fire.

By 2000, a law firm owned the prop­erty and made massive renov­a­tions. The ask­ing price was too steep, and a fire five years ago made the build­ing a can­did­ate for de­moli­tion.

“We needed to pre­serve this build­ing,” said Fred Moore, pres­id­ent of the Friends of Lower Dub­lin Academy and the Holmes­burg Civic As­so­ci­ation.

LOOK­ING AHEAD

Moore and oth­ers in the com­munity are look­ing for­ward to the new use.

“We’re elated,” said Elsie Stevens, an act­ive mem­ber of Friends of Lower Dub­lin Academy, Holme Circle Civic As­so­ci­ation and the 8th Po­lice Dis­trict Ad­vis­ory Coun­cil. “It’s won­der­ful that it will be a school again. That was its ori­gin­al pur­pose.”

Aut­ist­ic En­deavors is mak­ing out­reach to oth­er loc­al groups. It is a mem­ber of the Great­er North­east Phil­adelphia Cham­ber of Com­merce and the May­fair busi­ness and civic as­so­ci­ations.

The board of dir­ect­ors in­cludes loc­al busi­ness­wo­men Pat Betz, a May­fair res­id­ent and man­ager of the Be­ne­fi­cial Bank branch at Tyson and Brous av­en­ues, and Lisa Greco, treas­urer of the May­fair Busi­ness As­so­ci­ation, a mem­ber of the May­fair Com­munity De­vel­op­ment Corp. board, and own­er of Bel­lal­isa Hair Stu­dio.

The build­ing is loc­ated near Academy Road. It bor­ders Pennypack Woods and the Court­yard of Thomas Holmes apart­ment com­plex.

The main ex­ter­i­or is­sues are roof dam­age and open win­dows, along with graf­fiti and over­growth. In­side, there is all kinds of debris. It’s been home to home­less people and cats in the last few years.

BIG PRO­JECTS RE­MAIN

While loc­al uni­ons are donat­ing ser­vices and the state will fund the edu­ca­tion, the Butkiewiczes, in ad­di­tion to ab­sorb­ing the set­tle­ment costs, must provide the money to gut the build­ing and fund cer­tain op­er­at­ing ex­penses. One rev­en­ue pro­du­cer will be a day-care pro­gram for all chil­dren.

Aut­ist­ic En­deavors also has planned sev­er­al up­com­ing fund-raisers. There will be a beef-and-beer on Oct. 7 at Cannstat­ter’s, a golf out­ing on Oct. 17 at the Tor­res­dale-Frank­ford Coun­try Club, and a gala ball in April 2012 at the Ritz-Carlton in Cen­ter City. An­oth­er pos­sible be­ne­fit will be a Texas Hold-’Em tour­na­ment at the Penn Crisp Gym.

The staff will con­sist of people with pa­tience and pas­sion and the abil­ity to de­liv­er tender lov­ing care.

One of the early teach­ing hires is Dani­elle Stella-Schall, a re­cent Temple Uni­versity gradu­ate who is cer­ti­fied in spe­cial and ele­ment­ary edu­ca­tion. She is look­ing for­ward to col­lab­or­at­ing with par­ents and of­fer­ing in­di­vidu­al at­ten­tion. She re­spects the Butkiewiczes for pur­su­ing a bet­ter edu­ca­tion for their son and oth­er chil­dren with aut­ism.

“It’s amaz­ing what they’re do­ing. I’m in­spired by their story,” she said. “It’s very ex­cit­ing. The kids will come here and get ser­vices at no cost to the fam­ily. The school will fo­cus on get­ting them to func­tion in school and out of school and to lead in­de­pend­ent lives.”

Bar­bara Butkiewicz, a re­gistered nurse, will serve as school pres­id­ent and board sec­ret­ary. Her hus­band will be the CEO and board chair­man. Neither will be paid. An ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or will be hired.

The ren­ov­ated build­ing will in­clude a kit­chen, cafet­er­ia, of­fice space, re­cep­tion area and two out­door decks.

“It’s go­ing to be nice,” Dave Butkiewicz said.

In ad­di­tion, the couple will reach out to the nearby Thomas Holme Ele­ment­ary School in hopes that the stu­dents of Aut­ist­ic En­deavors will be able to use the pub­lic school’s gym and lib­rary, vis­it the nurse and have an oc­ca­sion­al lunch with the kids at Holme.

“To in­teg­rate the kids is a fab­ulous concept,” Dave Butkiewicz said. ••

For more in­form­a­tion, call 215-360-1568 or vis­it www.aut­isti­cen­deavors.org

Re­port­er Tom War­ing can be reached at 215-354-3034 or twar­ing@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at twaring@bsmphilly.com.

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