OCOEE Some mornings, Crystal Yoakum arrives at Hope Charter School before anyone else.
As she looks across the campus that she started 15 years ago, she is amazed at how far the school has come.
“It is overwhelming to me that it has really been able to happen,” Yoakum, the CEO of Hope Charter School, said.
The need for the school was personal. The Yoakums wanted to find the right school for their son, Josiah, who has autism.
“We were just having a difficult time finding a setting in which he wasn’t afraid, he wasn’t just crying all day, where he was learning,” she said. “And we were just coming into: ‘What is autism? What does this mean for us? What do we do for him?’”
Josiah attended a school for children with autism. The Yoakums began doing some therapy. They changed his diet. They began to see his language skills and academics improve.
“We really wanted to have an option for him that would include typical learners — regular kids he could learn to socialize and model after,” Yoakum said.
The idea for Hope Charter School was born — a place where students on the autism spectrum could be included in the regular classroom, at least for part of the day.
I like that isn’t just one type of student. We have every type of student. I feel like it’s helped us to relate to (students with disabilities) and relate to the world outside of just in school.
— Chloe Guy, student
The school district unanimously approved the charter school, and in October 2000, the school opened for kindergartners through eighth-graders. The campus opened with 80 students and 10 employees, including Yoakum as principal.
“It was a risk in the beginning,” Yoakum said. “We had an idea; we thought it would work.”
In 15 years, the school has grown to 90 employees between Hope and Legacy, the school’s high-school portion. Hope Charter currently has 465 students, while Legacy has 175.
Being innovative has worked in the school’s favor.
In September, Legacy was named a Blue Ribbon School, one of 335 schools. Because of its 100% graduation rate, the school also was chosen for excellent performance.
Classrooms are filled with all types of students. Some are gifted, while others have a more difficult time in their work.
“I like that it isn’t just one type of student; we have every type of student,” said Chloe Guy, a senior at Legacy. “I feel like it’s helped us to relate to (students with disabilities) and relate to the world outside of just in school.”
Elementary classes have both a teacher and an assistant to support students who might need extra help. Teachers work with students who would like extra tutoring or help after school. Exceptional education teachers are also on staff to make sure students are getting the help they need.
“I like all the teachers; they’re all positive,” said Camri Barnett, a fourth-grade student. “They’re always wanting to help us.”
Legacy could expand to another 50 students before it reaches capacity. But Hope has a waiting list of almost 600 students — a sign of the school’s success.
“It’s extremely discouraging for people who have been on that waiting list and they have to redo it every year,” she said. “But to have been on the waiting list four and five years — they begin to really get discouraged. We are exploring the idea of replicating our K-8, and finding another location for us to do what we we’re doing here.”
Josiah, the inspiration for the school, thrived there.
“He was such a success story,” Yoakum said.
His classmates embraced his presence at the school. In 2013, he graduated from Legacy with a 3.85 GPA. He now helps out at the high school, where Yoakum doesn’t have oversight over him. He reads to students, delivers mail to the buildings and works with two rescue horses that the school received.
The property north of the school will ultimately be used as a petting zoo for therapy purposes. The property will also allow the students to understand where milk and eggs come from.
“I most likely would like to work with animals at a zoo,” Josiah said.
Contact Jennifer Nesslar at [email protected].