Recommended reading from Alt Ed Austin

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If you’re like me, you look forward to summer as a relaxing time when you’ll catch up on the reading that’s been piling up on your nightstand, in your brain, on your device, or somewhere in cyberspace. Then reality sets in. Maybe you’ll finish it before the end of July and declare victory. More likely, you’ll tackle the first book or two and get distracted somewhere along the way. Or perhaps you’ll skip the list altogether in favor of shorter magazine articles, movies, games, or outdoor diversions during your precious free time. No judgment here; they’re all worthy pursuits!

So, with August winding down and the new school year and less laid-back schedules looming, I won’t burden you with more “must-reads” to add to your “must-do” list. Instead, I’ll just briefly let you know about a few education-related books I’ve read since spring that I think you’d find both enjoyable and useful.

 

What School Could Be:
Insights and Inspiration from Teachers across America


by Ted Dintersmith


Ted Dintersmith is best known in education circles as producer of the excellent 2015 documentary Most Likely to Succeed and co-author, with Tony Wagner, of the book of the same title. His follow-up book, published this year, grew out of a full year spent traveling to all 50 states, visiting hundreds of schools (public, charter, traditional private, and alternative), and talking to countless students, educators, administrators, parents, and policymakers about innovative ideas they’ve put into practice in all kinds of learning environments.

Dintersmith is a highly successful venture capitalist, but unlike many of his colleagues in the business and tech world who have jumped into the education reform movement in recent years, he does not demonize teachers or focus on tinkering with new forms of standardized testing. He is less interested in talking about all the things that are wrong with conventional education (though he’s not shy about doing that too when pressed for his opinions) than in sharing and spreading the potentially revolutionary practices he’s seen happening, often hidden and unsung, at local levels around the country.

I had the good fortune to meet with Dintersmith (or Ted, as he prefers to be called by everyone) this past spring when he came to Austin for a special screening of Most Likely to Succeed and to talk about his book with local education leaders. I found his knowledge to be vast and detailed; his thoughts on the kinds of education today’s learners need are largely aligned with my own. As you’ll notice if you read What School Could Be, Ted’s enthusiasm is contagious. I imagine you’ll come away from the book as inspired and energized to make change as I did.

 

Mighty Writing:
College Application Essay Guide


by Laurie Filipelli
in collaboration with Irena Smith


This is a long-overdue public recommendation. For more than a year now, I’ve been privately urging parents of high school juniors and rising seniors to give their kids Laurie Filipelli’s guide to writing effective personal essays for college applications. I’m happy to relay that my own son, who’s heading off to his first year of college at the end of the month, found the advice and exercises in Mighty Writing to be fun, accessible, and just the stimuli he needed to think deeply—and eventually write creatively—about his own experiences, values, and aspirations for a very specific audience: college admissions committees. When Sam was ready to start writing his official submissions last fall, he drew on the lists and vignettes he had composed during the summer while working his way through the guidebook.

For unconventionally schooled students like Sam, those required and optional essays often take on an even larger importance in the college admissions review, helping admissions officers form both a more expansive and a more specific understanding of who the students are and what they might add to the university community. Admissions staff at several colleges that awarded Sam substantial merit scholarships cited his unusual essays as helping his overall application really stand out from the stacks of more formulaic ones.

Austin-based author Laurie Filipelli is an essay writing coach, a former Waldorf high school English teacher, a social justice activist, and an award-winning poet. She’s been busy since publishing Mighty Writing in 2017; in fact, you can meet her and experience her way with words firsthand at the upcoming book launch of her latest poetry collection, Girl Paper Stone.

 


How to Raise an Adult:
Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success


by Julie-Lythcott-Haims


Some friendly advice from a me as a parent and education professional: Read, as soon as you can, either of these two books, or both. The authors take somewhat different approaches to the same general ideas: that children of all ages, but particularly teens, need WAY more independence and agency than our generation of parents has been conditioned to give them; and that we need to do everything we can to lessen the pressures in their lives, especially academic ones. Our kids’ mental and physical health and happiness depend on it. Both books include helpful, practical suggestions for how parents (and educators, too) can do just that.


Finally, if you’re interested in exploring more great books in the alternative education realm, check out the Alt Ed Library on this site. We’ve added lots of new titles since we unveiled it a year ago, and we’re always open to suggestions! Also consider joining the Smart Schooling Book Group, facilitated by Antonio Buehler, which meets once a month at Laura’s Library in West Austin. This month, it just so happens that the group will be discussing How to Raise an Adult.

Happy reading!


Teri Sperry
Founder, Alt Ed Austin

You’re never too young for your first draft: A roundup of resources for kids who write

As National Novel Writing Month, otherwise known as NaNoWriMo, gets into full swing this week, I thought it might be nice to review some of the options out there for kids who love to create lots of words—poetry, short stories, nonfiction, and yes . . . novels! I’m reminded every day that we live in a sort of golden age for young makers of all kinds, including writers. Kids can create their own blogs for free, and even produce books for their friends and family almost for free. They can review books and share their own work via YouTube, Facebook, Wattpad, and other social channels for creators.

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Last year we talked about the Austin Public Library Foundation’s Badgerdog writing program, and we really can’t recommend those folks highly enough for their amazing summer workshops and other events throughout the year. This month, the library is holding NaNoWriMo workshops on Wednesday evenings at the drop-dead gorgeous new Central Library, and for younger kids, they’re sponsoring a songwriting workshop on Saturday, November 11, at Twin Oaks Branch Library. Details about both are here.

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As for the elephant in a room of its own: the nonprofit Young Writers Program (YWP) is sponsored by the folks who bring the world NaNoWriMo every year. Kids and teens set their own writing goals, often along with a teacher or mentor. Some ambitious young writers over 13 choose to join the adult NaNo community and shoot for the full 50,000-word goal. Both kids and teachers have plenty of tools available, including workbooks that help with character building and plotting, prompts, and community events. Author superstars, including John Green, Daniel José Older, and Jenny Haan provide inspiring pep talks.

When I was looking for an example of a young writer who embraces the spirit of NaNo, Alice Sudlow, an editor at a writer-enabling enterprise called The Write Practice, suggested I check out a 17-year-old writer and super-reader who goes by the name of The Magic Violinist. A homeschooled dynamo, she and her family do NaNoWriMo together every year, and she has written novels, short stories, and hundreds of blog posts about writing and reading. In fact, she just wrote a post to help people find extra time for writing during November. And for skeptics, she explained 4 Reasons NaNoWriMo is Great for Writers. For kids who may feel isolated in the lonely endeavor of putting words on a page, The Magic Violinist praises the community created by NaNo:

Some of my best blogging friends have come from NaNoWriMo, and we keep in touch to this day. It’s hard to go into something like this alone, especially if it’s your first year.

When you sign up, if you sign up, poke around the forums for people who are attempting this for the first time. Strike up a conversation, ask the experts for advice. They’re more than happy to help a newbie out.

The amazing 826 Project is a national nonprofit that celebrates “the power of young voices, the possibility in their ideas, and the value of their words.” Long a community-based project with groups in seven big cities, 826 is affiliated with Austin Bat Cave but does not have an official presence in Austin. We talked about the valuable programs Austin Bat Cave provides for young Austin writers earlier this year, and we encourage everyone to check them out. In addition, the 826 Project recently added a rich digital component to reach more kids, parents, and communities—and this may be especially helpful for homeschooling parents or parents who want to supplement their kids’ school experience with more writing opportunities.  

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The 826 digital site requires a sign-up and asks for a donation (which you can skip if you’re just looking around and exploring). I like the fact that it includes a variety of skill-building activities that are grouped by age and also by type of writing (informational, persuasive, poetry, etc.). There are lessons built around particular topics and genres and examples of student writing to inspire kids from age 7 or 8 through the teens. For example, Alexa Torres, a  Detroit fourth-grader, shared a poem about pizza that she wrote in English and in Spanish:

DELICIOUS PEPPERONI PIZZA

Smells like melted mozzarella cheese.
dripping on the side of the plate.

The pepperoni smells like spicy wasabi.
I can see pepperoni faces that are happy,
and the cheese looks shiny,
the dough peeking out the side.
The crust looks like crazy bread, and it
looks like a long snake.
On my tongue, it feels hot like chips from
the fryer.
When I chew, it sounds like mushy
Tomatoes, squish, squish.
When I eat five pieces, I feel as happy as
when I get presents from Santa.
The pizza feels heavy from the toppings,
and the cheese is like a gray tiny rock.


PIZZA DE PEPPERONI DELICIOSA

Huele como queso derretido de mozzarella
goteando de un lado del plato.
El pepperoni huele como wasabi picoso.
Yo puedo ver caras de pepperoni que están
Felices y el queso se ve brilloso,
la masa asomándose del lado.
El borde parece pan loco y como una serpiente
Larga.
En mi lengua se siente caliente como papas
recién sacadas del sartén.
Cuando lo mastico sueno como tomates
pulposos, squish, squish.
Cuando me como cinco pedazos, me siento tan
feliz como cuando recibo regalos de santa.
La pizza me cae pesada de todos los toppings, y
el queso coma una roca pequeña color gris.


Writer and editor Maya Rushing Walker and her daughter, young writer Allegra Walker, recently appeared on a podcast called Mom Writes, talking about their experience writing novels together and independently. Allegra, who is now 15, has written several novels during NaNoWriMo, the first in elementary school. Allegra is thinking of self-publishing some of her work and is in the process of revising a novel. She publishes now through the Wattpad platform and has a following of devoted readers. The podcast discussion provides an interesting user’s view of Wattpad’s pros and cons. Maya cautions parents to “take a look around” before suggesting Wattpad to their kids, and to understand exactly what’s on the platform. And Allegra talks about comments sections, reassuring listeners that negative comments are rare or nonexistent in her experience:

You can comment quite a lot on people’s individual chapters. . . . The people who bother to comment are the ones who love it. . . . If you don’t love it, you’re probably not going to say anything.

Another recent episode of Mom Writes discussed how young writers can use fanfiction to improve and distribute their writing. The guest was Michelle Hazen, who advocates for the creative power of fanfiction.

Go Teen Writers is a blog (plus Facebook community) that offers teens helpful tips, general encouragement, and a way to share ideas. It’s run by three published authors and writing coaches who clearly enjoy connecting with young people. They’ve written a book, also called Go Teen Writers, about how teens can go from first draft to published book.

Are your kids in search of real-life instead of online comrades for their writing adventure? In Austin, Recycled Reads Bookstore, which is affiliated with the public library, holds “write-in” events on Saturdays and welcome kids, teens, and adults for a little community and discussion after the writing is done. So pack up your crayons, pencils, or laptop, and let’s go write!


Shelley Sperry
Sperry Editorial
 

When a trowel and a wooden spoon are just what the doctor ordered

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From Austin to New York, parents are putting a nutrition curriculum, healthy cooking lessons, and time spent in vegetable gardens at or near the top of the list of things they want their kids to learn in school, and many alternative and public schools, as well as government programs and nonprofits, are filling that need.

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I wanted to look at the variety of ways students are getting important nutrition information, and I can tell you one thing: This is not your mother’s Experiences in Homemaking class from the 1950s, nor is it my Home Ec class from the 1970s. It’s much tastier!

Our alt ed community has long been active in emphasizing holistic learning, including healthy eating and gardening in daily school routines. For example, last year the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine awarded Austin’s Integrity Academy a “golden carrot” for its commitment to serving plant-based, organic meals. In the short run, commitment to students’ health means more energy and attention in the classroom, but in the long run it also means less risk of disease in adulthood. At Integrity Academy, kids spend a lot of time nurturing plants in the garden and learning to eat mindfully, enjoying the peas, squash, beans,and other crops they’ve grown themselves.

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Another Austin school dedicated to “building community through the power of food” is Wholesome Generation. The Reggio Emilia curriculum at Wholesome Generation serves low-income families and encourages kids to join in all the activities around meal preparation: “Let them be part of the gardening. Part of the shopping. Part of the prepping and slicing and dicing. Get them confident in the kitchen.”

In Texas, alternative schools led the way in bringing nutrition education and cooking into the curriculum, but now AISD is making big strides as well. With a Good Food Purchasing Program that includes sustainability, animal welfare, fair farm labor, and nutrition in its considerations when sourcing food, AISD is improving the quality of breakfasts and lunches served to students. Many of the veggies in those meals now come from the Garden to Café program, started last year at six Austin-area schools where kids can now plant, harvest, and eat their own greens. Another source of yummy, local food for Austin schools is Johnson’s Backyard Garden.

Nearby, in San Antonio, the Culinary Health Education for Families (CHEF) program, launched this year with funding from the Goldsbury Foundation and supported by the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio, is getting serious about children’s health. The program is setting up teaching kitchens for students at the YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs, and even the San Antonio Botanical Garden, as well as partnering with local public schools.

Across the continent, in New York City, Yadira Garcia is among many professional chefs working in the innovative Wellness in the Schools program, a growing nonprofit that now reaches about 50,000 students in New York, New Jersey, California, and Florida. The chefs teach cooking classes and nutrition during the day and create special events involving parents after school. In a recent New York Times article, Garcia noted that the key is for students to make the meals themselves, so they “turn into the best salespeople,” encouraging their friends to try the kale chips, black beans, and salads they’ve created.

A for-profit New York City enterprise called Butterbeans is run by two moms who were looking for a way to bring healthy food and wellness education to students in a playful way. In addition to providing lunches to about 15 schools in the city, Butterbeans also offers camps where kids can learn to grow and cook their own food while exploring urban gardens around the city.

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In Virginia, where I live, a project with a great name, the Dr. Yum Project, is all about teaching preschoolers and parents to get off to a healthy start with a curriculum that makes cooking and learning about food an adventure. The nonprofit, which is the brainchild of pediatrician Nimali Fernando, also features a “meal maker machine” to help busy families solve the perpetual problem of what’s for dinner with healthy recipes to prepare together.

Okay, now I’m hungry. Time to look for some carrots and blueberries to replace those oreos that are whispering my name . . .

If you’re interested in the topic of kids, health, and food, you might want to take a look at these articles, blog posts, and other resources:


Shelley Sperry


Austin Yawp!: A welcoming new learning community where families connect

A new unschooling and peaceful parenting space called Austin Yawp! has emerged in the past few months, so I decided to grab the opportunity to learn more about it by talking with Hannah Ford, one of Yawp!’s founders. Although unschooling has been around as an alternative education option at least since the 1970s, the concept is new to me (but not to my sister and Alt Ed Austin founder Teri), so I began by asking about some basics.

What exactly is unschooling? Hannah explains that unschoolers allow kids to learn naturally, without an imposed curriculum. “You work together as a family, and kids are empowered to make choices just like adults are able to make choices. We respect children, and we trust them.” She says that it’s a little crazy that the world believes everyone needs a piece of paper and test scores to prove they are learning, when learning is such a fundamental, natural process.

But unschooling is not exactly “child-led” as people sometimes describe it. “The child is not always leading, because that would presume the child knows all that’s available. What we’re doing is looking for sparks of passion, and feeding them. We’re constantly watching to see what kids are excited about. ‘Strewing’ is a good term. You look for what makes a kid’s eyes light up, and help them find information—books, people, museums—and let them go as far as they want to. If your children are interested in fish, you follow the fish as long as they want to!”

Hannah emphasizes that although she favors unschooling, Yawp! welcomes families pursuing a whole variety of approaches to learning, including various forms of homeschooling, alternative schooling, and even public school.

“We’ve been reassuring people that there is no test. If you’re interested in peaceful parenting and trusting and respecting children, we want to hear what you have to say. We want to be inclusive of a variety of philosophies. When you come here, you’re acknowledging respect for what we’re doing, respect for all the other families.”

Unschooling is still an uncommon choice, which can be isolating. Hannah saw that families needed a way to combat that isolation, and that’s how Austin Yawp! was born. “I feel like not only are families connecting with each other through Yawp!, but they’re also deepening family relationships. We have some kids who previously weren’t that comfortable in social settings, but here there’s a space where the vibe is welcoming to everyone, and that allows for connections and friendships.”

“And it’s really nice to meet other families on neutral ground, where no one has to worry about tidying up the house, and there’s no one hushing you, as you might have at a library or coffee shop,” says Hannah.

A typical day at Yawp! includes some planned events as well as open drop-in hours when families can meet to pursue any activity that interests them. Kids have met up for Minecraft, to create elaborate cardboard houses, and to play with DIY light sabers. The space has also hosted Raising Resisters, a parent discussion group that focuses on anti-oppressive parenting and education tactics.

Yawp! currently operates in a small space in the Mueller neighborhood, and they are planning to expand to a second location that will offer more room and a better outdoor play space. Watch their Facebook page for more details and information about upcoming events. And to learn more about activities, visiting, and the member agreement, check out the Austin Yawp! website.


Shelley Sperry
 

Fun leads to mastery in game-based education

Some of the most innovative, forward-looking alternative learning experiences for kids today are built on the notion of games and gaming. Edutopia, the teaching and learning website, even has a Pinterest board devoted to game-based learning. Many commercial games that teach biology, math, history, geography, and every other subject imaginable are infiltrating traditional classrooms, and for particular subjects or problems, that makes a lot of sense. But for this blog post, I wanted to look at why educators would create an entire curriculum based on gaming.

 Thinking hard, gaming hard at Quest to Learn, an alternative public school in New York City

Thinking hard, gaming hard at Quest to Learn, an alternative public school in New York City

In New York City an innovative school for grades 6–12 called Quest to Learn is an evolving project to improve kids’ learning, empathy, and collaboration skills. In reading about Quest, I learned the basic tenets of the gaming approach—and then I was lucky enough to interview Austin’s own Cheryl Kruckeberg, who has been advocating for game-based education and running Game of Village, a program based on these tenets, for years.

Quest’s founders, a nonprofit group called the Institute of Play, created an alternative, publicly funded “school of choice” entirely focused on games for a few key reasons, including:

  • Games ask us to collaborate with others and learn by doing.
  • In a game, teachers and students can see immediately whether they are succeeding or failing and can go back and try again, or “iterate.” Failing is an important part of learning in any game, and (unlike a failing grade in a traditional classroom) helps motivate kids to keep trying.
  • Learning happens by doing!
  • Everyone gets to participate and contribute something unique to the process.
  • Feedback happens in the moment, not days or weeks later in an exam.
 A long-running Austin program centered on interdisciplinary learning through role playing and world building

A long-running Austin program centered on interdisciplinary learning through role playing and world building

My talk with Austin’s Cheryl Kruckeberg reinforced many of the notions above with real-life examples from Game of Village. Cheryl says that one of the best things about learning through play is that the consequences aren’t dire, so kids can go all out to win, but if they lose or make mistakes, it’s just a game. “Tomorrow they come back and try again.”

The problem in most grade-based education, says Cheryl, is that it tells kids that an “F” is a statement about who they are, and that may very well change how they think about themselves. “All of that judgment is gone in the concept of the game,” she explains. Kids are having fun and working together to improve, not anxious about judgment and evaluations from others.

“Play is the modus operandi of learning—the way to knowledge, to intimacy, to relationships with the world and people in it,” Cheryl continues. “Jean Piaget [the pioneering child psychologist] said that play is for the pleasure of mastery, and I think that’s right. Kids will do things for play and bend themselves into pretzels to overcome any challenge for the sheer pleasure of mastering something—to get to the next level in a digital game or board game, for example—when they wouldn’t do that for the sake of rote classroom learning.”

Readers of the blog may have met Cheryl a few months ago, when she wrote a blog post about exactly how Game of Village works—creating an entire alternative village-world on a 1/24 scale, with 3-inch avatars, or “peeps” who inhabit the village. Games ideally last about 25–30 days and include around 25 kids, but the time period can span an intensive five or six weeks, or can be spread out over an entire school year for one day each week.

 From a recent Game of Village showcase

From a recent Game of Village showcase

I wondered what kind of learning objectives and structures the Game of Village mentors begin with, and Cheryl explained, “What we do is set some basic take-aways and usually a time period and geographical setting. It’s important to have some parameters, so that kids have something to push against. From there, they have a lot of freedom to explore.”

“Recently, we launched a village of the future, which kids love because of all the gizmos they can try. Our goals were to talk about sustainability and climate, including exploring sustainable living systems. The kids got an invitation to help the inhabitants of a distant planet that had used up all its resources. They had to build a model sustainable village and educate the aliens on how to use it. The kids had to research carbon footprints, carbon capture, how to produce electricity through solar, wind, and wave technology versus fossil fuels—explaining their impacts and long-term viability. They designed homes and civic systems. It’s exciting because the way each village evolves is organic, and the mentors release control of the game to the kids as soon as possible.”

 A Game of Village participant tinkering toward mastery

A Game of Village participant tinkering toward mastery

Often the kids in Game of Village are of a similar age—around 10 to 14, but sometimes there are 8-year-olds, and those kids find unique ways of playing the game, says Cheryl. “The older kids get into the heady stuff and deep research, but younger kids do more of the crafting.” Just as in real life, both thinkers and crafters are critical to success.

Cheryl also believes that interactions between the students are invaluable in teaching students about nurturing and supporting each other. “We have kids who begin at a young age and then move into leadership roles as they get older. There are times when something the little ones need to do is a task they can’t handle, so we have older kids who are ‘village mentors in training’ and do safety training that allows them to help younger kids and reinforce their own learning at the same time. Our traditional schools separate kids so much that this important mentoring time is gone, and that’s a huge loss in our society. The Game of Village tries to avoid that separation. Kids need the opportunity to nurture.”

“For me, somewhere along the line education got separated from learning,” Cheryl explains. “People really want to learn, and that distinguishes us as a species. Sparrows will just build nests the same way, over and over—but human beings want to try this, that, and the other thing, always trying new alternatives.” In a nutshell—or an eggshell—this is what game-based learning provides.

 Pacifica Village

Pacifica Village

Game of Village kids completed their creation of Pacifica, a sustainable village for the planet Kepler-9D, on May 19 at AHB Community School. Students at Integrity Academy will experience a full unit of Game of Village next year. More information about Game of Village and how your kids can get involved is available here.

And for another fascinating take on role-playing games and learning, check out a recent article by Paul Darvasi for KQED News, about Sword and Sorcery Camps.

Game on!


Shelley Sperry
 

Awareness, acceptance, and admiration for kids with ASD

It’s a little late, but as Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month comes to a close, I wanted to make sure to highlight some of the great work being done for Austin kids on the autism spectrum. Autism is a collection of neurological, developmental disorders that used to be divided up into many categories, but now researchers believe they all are variations of the same thing: Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD. The CDC estimates about 1.5 percent of kids in the United States are on the spectrum, and it’s something they’re born with, not the result of any trauma or environmental factors.

Kids with ASD often struggle with communication and social interaction, have heightened sensitivity to the world around them, and sometimes have some trouble with motor skills. The Autism Society of Texas (formerly the Autism Society of Central Texas) has loads of materials for parents, children, and educators who would like to become advocates and allies—or just want to know more. Their website also highlights camps for kids on the spectrum in the new 2017 Recreation & Camp Guide for Students with Special Needs, available in English and Spanish.

One of the best ways we can become good allies for kids with ASD is to help everyone learn more about it, including children of all ages. I can recommend Amethyst Schaber’s YouTube channel and especially her “Ask an Autistic” feature for its straightforward answers to common and not-so-common questions. Amethyst’s friendly face and voice will help younger children understand that ASD isn’t a scary thing and that some of the common “stims,” or forms of stimulation used by people with ASD (like hand waving or eye movements) are nothing to be afraid of.

Another terrific video primer for middle and high school kids who want to learn more about ASD is Khan Academy’s “What is autism spectrum disorder?”

For those who would like a resource in English and Spanish, make sure to take a look at Autism Spectrum Explained. This website was created by a college student whose sister is on the spectrum. The clever videos show viewers that different doesn’t mean non-functioning—in one case by using the analogy of PC and Mac operating systems.

Many schools in Austin and surrounding areas offer services tailored to children and teens on the spectrum within inclusive learning environments. These include alternatives like The Rise School of Austin, William’s Community School, Odyssey School, and The Magnolia School, as well as St. Francis School. For a complete list of ASD-friendly schools and other educational programs, go to the Autism Society of Texas 2017 Resource Guide, which offers links to education resources, both private and public.


Shelley Sperry