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Grizzly Academy Opens for First School Year

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Grace Barrett
A Grizzly Academy sign hangs over the entrance to the building. This building is called the Charles R. Parsons Administrative Building.
Students at Grizzly Academy play together on the playground during recess. Outdoor recess is a privilege students can earn after leveling up for practicing good behavior. Photo courtesy of Erin Simpson.

Wadsworth City School District has opened a new elementary school called Grizzly Academy. It is designed to be a learning environment that is better matched to certain students’ academic, social, and emotional development needs. The 2023-2024 school year is the first year Grizzly Academy has been opened to students.
“Grizzly Academy is an alternate setting for students who struggle in the traditional classroom setting,” said Principal Erin Simpson. “[They may] struggle with a lot of students in their class, a lot of transitions in the day, a lot of the noise of a traditional school in terms of movement, announcements interrupting, assemblies–all of those pieces.”
Grizzly Academy was inspired by similar programs in other districts. Prior to its creation, twelve Wadsworth students were being sent to other schools outside of the district that would better meet their needs. However, there was a push for these students to remain in the Wadsworth school district.
“We saw the success of those programs, but we wanted our kids to still be Grizzlies,” Simpson said.
After researching other programs, the director of student services, Joyce Walker, and the special education coordinator, Jennifer Thomas, proposed the idea of Wadsworth creating its own version of the program. Their plan was approved by the Board of Education in February, and by late spring they had begun developing the program and posting positions.
Grizzly Academy was created to serve a wide variety of students. Enrollment is not limited to students with designated accommodations.
“It’s a team decision with the building that they’re coming from, that their academic team and the parents are definitely main players on,” Simpson said. “Some of our students have Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), some have a 504 plan that gives them accommodations, and some have neither.”

Quote from Erin Simpson, principal at Grizzly Academy. Simpson used to be the principal at Overlook Elementary. Graphic by Grace Barrett and Lizzy Edwards.

While students who attend the Grizzly Academy are still required to complete the district’s core curriculum, as well as state testing requirements, their school days are structured much differently than those of a traditional elementary school.
Each day starts with students of all grades meeting in the “Family Room,” an open environment that does not follow the form of a traditional classroom. All morning announcements, daily learning concepts, and the statement of the Grizzly Academy Promise happen here before students disperse into their assigned classroom or learning space. Rather than utilizing grade-specific classrooms, the Grizzly Academy has two rooms divided into kindergarten through second grade, which has ten students, and third through fourth grade, which has six students. Along with these classrooms, there are multiple sensory areas and rooms that students can use when feeling over-stimulated, or when being distracting to other students.

K-2 students practice a breathing exercise at the start of their school day. Students are grouped in two classrooms–one for K-2, and the other for 3-4. Photo by Lizzy Edwards.

“We try to tailor things for the kids based on where they are academically, or what their stamina is at that moment,” said Shannon Fisher, who is the general education teacher for kindergarten through second-grade students.
Before teaching at Grizzly Academy, Fisher taught preschool at Overlook for six years and kindergarten for three years. Fisher is certified in general and special education, which has helped her transition from teaching in a traditional school to teaching students with accommodations.
“It was something that I was very interested in and wanted to do because these are the kids that I love working with,” Fisher said.
Working in this environment has its challenges for both teachers and students.
“The biggest challenge for me is the balance between building the social-emotional skills and still also teaching that academic content as much as I can,” Fisher said. “I don’t want them to get behind.”

Students wear matching T-shirts with the school motto. Students recite the Grizzly. Academy Promise at the beginning of each day. Photo courtesy of Erin Simpson.

To help combat these challenges, each classroom has three adults assigned to it: a general education teacher, a special education teacher, and a behavior technician.
Outside of those in the classroom, students have a morning and afternoon check-in with an assigned adult. One of these adults is Kamie Stringer, the behavior specialist for the school.
Stringer scientifically analyzes behaviors using an ‘ABC’ format, which stands for antecedent, behavior, and consequence, to collect data on each negative behavior and work toward improvement within that area.
“It’s really intentional, and it’s really about trying to pinpoint what are the behaviors and what are they trying to get because all behavior is communication,” Stringer said. “Then, we use that information to help guide how we work with them.”
Rather than being assigned to one specific classroom, Stringer jumps between different rooms depending on where she is needed. Stringer does her best to stay level-headed amid the unpredictable situations she often faces.
“Because behavior change is slow, there are days when you can feel a little defeated,” Stringer said. “To professionally detach from situations, but still be empathetic and engaged is an interesting balance.”

A staff member assists a student with a sensory activity during the school day. Each student is given opportunities to have one-on-one time with the faculty. Photo courtesy of Erin Simpson.

Students are encouraged to practice good behaviors, as this will allow them to “level up” and receive more privileges.
“Our students work on a level system, where they are earning points each day for practices that we’re trying to get them to generalize: having a safe body, using kind words, staying in their areas, completing work,” Simpson said.
After leveling up, each individual student is celebrated. The goal is that once students reach Level 5, they can start the process of transitioning back to a traditional school.
However, the staff’s first priority is creating a loving and supportive environment for the students.
“Our goal is to focus on relationships first and build relationships and connections for kids. They have to feel safe and loved and supported before we can get to that academic growth,” Simpson said. “Our theme at Grizzly Academy is family growing together. We really do promote being family-centered. We are all about being family.”
Simpson has been inspired by the early success of Grizzly Academy and hopes to eventually expand it to include all Wadsworth students in grades K-12.
“Our greatest success is seeing the confidence the students are building in themselves,” Simpson said. “It has been wonderful. We had this vision for the program and what we thought it would look like, and to see it happen and come together has been so amazing and powerful.”

 

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About the Contributors
Grace Barrett, Entertainment Editor
Grace Barrett is the Entertainment Editor for the Bruin and has been on the staff for two years. Her favorite departments to write in are Features and In-depth, and the articles she is most proud of include her news story about the shooting at MSU, her article about the Grizzly Academy, as well as any article that covers a member of the community outside of the Wadsworth City School District. Her favorite parts about being in the Bruin are getting to interact with people from around the country, and designing layouts for her in-print pages.
Lizzy Edwards, In-Depth Editor
Lizzy Edwards is the In-Depth editor for The Bruin. She has been on the staff for two years. Her favorite departments to write in are In-Depth and Features, and two of her favorite stories she wrote were In-Depths about the election in Ohio and the 55th anniversary of the Bruin. Her favorite part of being on the Bruin staff is working together with the rest of the staff to write stories that are interesting and relevant to the community. She finds it very rewarding to plan a story and layout and see it all come together on the page.
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