Ep. 68: Cool Schools with the Julie Billiart Schools

September 24, 2018

You may have heard that private schools don’t serve students with special needs. But in today’s podcast, Director of National Research Mike McShane talks with Lannie Davis-Frecker, president and CEO of the Julie Billiart Schools, about how the schools serve students with a variety of special needs, how they fund the schools and how they measure progress.

Mike McShane: Hello and welcome back to the Cool Schools Podcast. Now, stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “Catholic schools don’t serve students with special needs. Private schools, they don’t serve students with special needs. If we expand private school choice or if we give more opportunities for parents to pick where they want to go to school, students with specials needs will not have the same opportunities as everybody else.”

Today on the podcast, we are talking to a school leader from a school that tackles that issue directly. Lannie Davis-Frecker is the president of the Julie Billiart Schools for the longest time in Cleveland, Ohio. It was just the Julie Billiart School founded in 1954. A Catholic school specifically designed to teach students with special needs. They have recently added an S onto the end to be the Julie Billiart Schools. They have expanded into Akron, Ohio, home of Lebron James and now also, a great school for students with special needs. It may take them some time to reach the same level of fame as Lebron James has, but I think they’re well on their way to that.

With plans to expand all across Northeastern Ohio, I think eventually they’d like to end up with something around six schools. This is a school network that is growing and meeting a really specific need in the community to have students with special needs. We are about to embark upon a wide ranging conversation where we touch on public policy, we talk about the history, we talk about the joys and the gifts that students with specials needs give to the educators that are lucky enough to get a chance to educate them.

It’s a conversation I thoroughly enjoyed and without further ado, this is my conversation with Lannie Davis Frecker of the Julie Billiart Schools. I think borrowing from the Sound of Music, we should start at the very beginning because that’s a very good place to start. I’m wondering if you can sketch out the thumbnail history of the Julie Billiart School.

Lannie Davis-Frecker: Absolutely. We have an interesting history. The Sisters of Notre Dame who have always been our champions and our trailblazers, and God love those wonderful women, but they really, in 1954 when, if you really think about at that point in time, what we knew about people with learning differences and people with special needs, a lot of them were institutionalized, a lot of them were ostracized from the public school, they were sent home. People didn’t think that they could learn. The sisters did a beautiful thing and basically said, “God didn’t make a mistake on you. Come to our school.”

In 1954, they started in a schoolhouse on a separate campus from where we are now. They started with 14 kids. At the end of those four years, they had over 40 children that they were serving. All had some pretty profound needs at that time. Then we had really outgrown that space and so, the school that we have been in now, with Mr. Arter’s Mansion, he was an international attorney, and he had the mansion and he left it to his sons after he passed. They were philanthropists and didn’t really want it to be absorbed by the country club that we actually butt up to.

Kind of how the story goes is that there was a priest in from the diocese who was golfing with the brothers, and he mentioned that there’s some sisters who need some space for a school for kids with special needs. There was a transaction of a dollar so that we could buy the property, and the sisters moved in. We have been home there for 60 years at our Lyndhurst location. I’m very proud to say that here, 64 years later, we have the exact same mission of serving people who learn differently, who have special learning and social needs, but the profile of the child that we have served has changed over time, where in the past, it was much more profoundly handicapped children. It’s always kind of been a response to who was maybe being underserved in the public schools.

Mike McShane: Sure. Now, how many students in total do you serve today?

Lannie Davis-Frecker: The best part about this is that, in the fall we launched a second school, it’s our first replicated school. Now we started in the Akron space, which is about 30 to 40 minutes south of where the Lyndhurst school is. At the Lyndhurst campus, we have 127 kids, and at our Akron school now, we have 18 kids, but we’re adding more grades next year and we will probably be at about 50 enrollment there next year. Currently, we serve 145 kids, all with special learning needs.

Mike McShane: What grades do you typically serve?

Lannie Davis-Frecker: It’s a kindergarten through eighth grade model.

Mike McShane: Now, I know from speaking with other folks from Catholic schools, and as frequent listeners to the podcast will know, I am an admitted Catholic school homer, I was both educated by Catholic schools and taught in Catholic schools. One of the constant issues that Catholic schools have dealt with is funding, and this is funding just for their normal student population, and something they definitely struggle with, the students with special needs. You have a Catholic school that is entirely devoted to serving students with special needs. How does the financial model work?

Lannie Davis-Frecker: Great question because I know that, I always say, we are Catholic, but many of the children that we serve are not Catholic. If you look at the root word of Catholic, it means universal, so I like to say that we really are out there to help and serve all children and their families who really have special learning needs.

What we have done is that, we’re very blessed to live in Ohio because we have a pretty favorable political environment that has a lot of educational choice options for kids with special needs. There are two different scholarships, the EdChoice Scholarship, as well as the Jon Peterson Scholarship, where a parent essentially gives up their free appropriate public education and goes to a certified state provider. We are that provider.

Of the two scholarships, both can do anywhere between $10,000 or $27,000, which is the max scholarship, which does pay for our services and our tuition. That is how really our financial model is sustainable and we’ve been able to grow because of it.

Mike McShane: Those dollars are a portion based on … Is there some sort of formula in the state that determines based on the student’s special need, how much money goes with them or how do they figure out how much of that $10 to $27,000 an individual child might get?

Lannie Davis-Frecker: Yeah. Actually there’s even categories as low as $2,000 and I think that’s for speech and language. There’s different categories and different tiers, but it’s all based upon your qualifying disability found in your ETR, your Evaluative Team Report. When there is a recognized disability by the school district, then there’s a category that then is equated to the services needed for that category. Autism has $27,000 associated with, that the parent can say, “I’m going to give up my free appropriate public education and go to a provider.”

Mike McShane: Now, where do you find your teachers? I imagine there’s a sort of Venn diagram here of obviously people who are gifted with helping students with special needs, but there’s also a religious component here and there’s now expansions. How are you thinking through that?

Lannie Davis-Frecker: We are, again, incredibly blessed that we have some wonderful universities around us, we have some wonderful … We have a very good reputation, and a lot, we have not had a really hard time finding people who want to work at our school. I think that in your typical, if you’re an intervention specialist in a typical public school model, you’re going to teach one to two classes, maybe, depending on if they’re mild to moderate students. You might do some pull out, you might do some push in, and because our teachers are not general ed, they are intervention specialists, and all day long they are working with our students, they actually get to teach. They actually get to be present to the children and watch those light bulbs go off. They get to, essentially, provide them intervention all day long.

You see the repetition, you see the constant, when you’re laying that kind of foundation that you can see a lot of those barriers broken down. I will say that our teachers are, I would put them up against any teachers throughout the country because their passion is the reason that they are there. They choose to love the children first. When the children are loved, we find that all of a sudden they start to believe in themselves, and then they’re starting to take some educational risks. Then we see the social risks come out. They’re in a place of where they have hope for the first time.

A lot of our kids come to us and they’re somewhat broken. They’ve maybe been in an educational setting where they haven’t felt successful. That’s huge for a child. They sometimes will shut down, or stop thinking that they can, and there’s a lot of power there. Our teachers really love them first, get to know who they are as people and as learners. And then they challenge them and that’s why our whole tagline is, “Beyond Education and Beyond Expectations,” because we go beyond the classroom and your traditional education, and we definitely go … The teachers go beyond expectations and our students go beyond what any of the doctors maybe would have told them.

I have parents tell me all the time that, oh, this doctor said my child would need an augmentative form of communication or would never speak. And now, the child’s speaking different languages. I mean, the stories coming out of our … The past 64 years with what we’ve been able to do on a child’s journey is just nothing short of a miracle.

Mike McShane: Absolutely. You mention participating in these state programs. I’d imagine that with participation comes paperwork, or comes additional requirements from the state, as well as, political concerns, I know. Sort of any program that’s drafted by a legislature could be taken away some day by a legislature and others. I’m just curious how you interact with the public policy realm and how that shapes what you are or not able to do?

Lannie Davis-Frecker: Yeah. Like I said, I mean, when you said, what would be the biggest political risk, I mean, if these scholarships went away, it would be terrible for our financial model because there’s not many of our families that can actually pay for the cost of these services, because we’re not just, yes, we have intervention specialists, but we also have a BCBA on staff, an art therapist on staff, a music therapist to speech language pathologists, an occupational therapist.

You have a lot of different services happening in-house, which makes our educational model a lot different and more expensive. If those scholarships went away, it would be a major, major issue for us financially. However, I’m not seeing that as part of what’s happening right now. Again, Ohio has been politically, it’s been a pretty great state for choice in education and I don’t foresee these scholarships being something that right now, is at all being talked about at the state level.

Mike McShane: Great.

Lannie Davis-Frecker: We have some advocates that we work with and some lobbyists, and School Choice Ohio, I used to serve on their board. They’re great people and doing wonderful work in the political realm. They are advocating for choice and for parent quality options. I have stayed close with them, and so again, I’m not at a place where I think that we’re at risk.

Mike McShane: That’s great. I imagine so having these dollars coming in and others, the Julie Billiart School has become the Julie Billiart Schools, as you mentioned, so you have a new campus opening. It’s my understanding that there are plans to open more campuses. Could you maybe talk us through the plans there?

Lannie Davis-Frecker: Yes. We had a waiting list. When I came on as president, I was the first lay president after Sister Agnes Marie, who was there for over 30 years at our school and she was-

Mike McShane: It’s a tough act to follow.

Lannie Davis-Frecker: Amazing. It’s a very tough act to follow. Very big shoes to fill. She really laid the foundation so that we could expand. Because of that waiting list, we decided to embark on a strategic planning process. We had some different partners help with some consulting work, and some strategic planning, and what we did in the fall of 2017, was launch our first replicated school and we started small with kindergarten, first, and second grade. We took our assistant principal from our Lynhurst campus, asked him to be a principal down in Akron, and it was a fantastic opportunity, and it was a fantastic year. We started the year with actually 14 kids, just like the sisters started with many years ago. I always said that, God’s providence.

Mike McShane: That’s great.

Lannie Davis-Frecker: We started with 14 children, we’re ending the year with 18 children, and like I said, next year we’ll be adding third, fourth, and fifth grade. We think we’ll have probably over 50 kids next year. I think we have like 42 registered. We will have that next year. And then the following year, we will add to grow to eighth grade. We really want to continue to expand. Our overall plan calls for six schools across Northeast Ohio and for 700 kids with special needs across Northeast Ohio, really have their needs met because of us.

Lannie Davis-Frecker: We haven’t really put a timeline on when we can serve 700 kids because we have some no-go criteria and different thresholds that we need to meet before we can expand. I’m getting called all the time about, “Oh, we need one of these schools in our state,” and, “Oh, I wish our church would be able to educate kids with autism,” or “Our kids with dyslexia aren’t able to have their needs met at our parish school,” or this or that. It makes our model so desirable and really should be part of what our church is doing, and what we, as a Catholic, meaning universal, should be focused on. I’m very, very confident in our model. We’re just doing very slow and thoughtful growth because of all the things that happen with—

Mike McShane: Sure. Totally. As you expand to these new areas, I’d be interested to know where you find your students. Where do you get your students from and also, given the fact that they have to navigate the voucher programs, or the choice programs, like, how do you help walk their families through that process so that they’re able to take advantage of it.

Lannie Davis-Frecker: Great question. I wish I had a magic answer to any of that. Because we have been there for 64 years at Lyndhurst, we never really had to market. We never had to … People came to us because they knew of our reputation, a lot of it was word-of-mouth, a lot of it was throughout time, and that the area hospitals and the diagnostics were recommending our school. We didn’t really have to. In Akron, this was a challenge, was, how do we find the parents that want a different choice, or a different option for their child?

We did spend some time doing a market analysis. What I will tell you is, we weren’t in boots on the ground in the community early enough. There were also, any time you do a brand new school, every school leader I’ve talked to that had launched a school, has told me enrollment was low their first year. Because parents aren’t inherently going to take a risk on their child. I think we had some parents on the sidelines, watching, seeing what we did. That’s why I think numbers have improved with this year.

You’re exactly right that the scholarships are not known. If a parent is not extremely savvy, or maybe in the kind of field that hears about this stuff, they don’t know that they have options, that they have quality options. I know that some of the lobbyists really worked on being able to give a piece of paper at an IEP meeting to the parents to say, “You have options, here are scholarships that you have options of.”

When we’re out in the community we have a one-pager that help them navigate how to find a quality provider and how you can actually receive the state scholarships because it’s not easy. We’d have factored in a little bit of educating the parents and journeying with them, so that regardless of a child’s ability to pay, they can attend our school if they need to.

Mike McShane: You mentioned briefly, earlier, having to step into the shoes of a nun who had run the school for 30 years, which I do not in any way envy you for having to do that. I’m curious about, how did you get involved? How did you decide to take that leap?

Lannie Davis-Frecker: Well, I actually started in the classroom at Julie Billiart School. I had already fallen in love with the mission and fallen in love with the kids, and our model, and what we can do, and how different it is from the public schools. I’ve had experience in the public schools, as well. I believe in all types of education, but what we can do at Julie Billiart Schools is very different. We can set up individualized curriculum for that child to meet their needs and our environment truly does meet the child’s needs. We fit the child instead of the child having to really fit into us.

When I noticed that, I kind of said yes to any opportunity if it meant helping these kids. I started as a second grade teacher. And then I switched to kindergarten, and then I was the assistant principal and the director of special ed. When Sister Agnes Marie announced her retirement, the board had me do a year of shadowing and then with the hope that I would take over as president and CEO. When we established the network in the spring of last year, I transitioned to be the president and CEO of Julie Billiart School’s network.

Mike McShane: As you look back on this time period, and you mentioned some of these earlier, moving into Akron and not getting out there early enough. I’d love to know for the educators out there, for the potential school leaders out there, if you look back on lessons that you’ve learned, or if you could go back to that beginning stage and give yourself a piece of advice knowing what you know now, I wonder what advice would you give yourself?

Lannie Davis-Frecker: Someone had said to me, “You’re never going to have enough money. You’re never going to have enough time, and you’re never going to have enough help.” I was like, oh no, we’ve met our benchmark for money. We’ve met our benchmark here, and I was very naïve to think that this wasn’t going to be a journey full of different barriers and different conflicts. Change is hard. I mean, educators know that change is hard. What it does when you are really scaling an organization and changing that organization, I wish, looking back, I would of been a little bit more intentional about our communication.

What I mean by that is, we spent so much time intentionally transferring the culture, that internally, I think things were really good, but some of the communication with some of our greatest constituents, we missed a little bit. If I could go back, I think I would have created more time for myself to be in some bigger conversations with different constituents and be more thoughtful about our communicating, what we were doing, and what the vision was for the future.

Mike McShane: Sure. Now, I have to put my bias out there, as well. I already did my Catholic homer bias, but my other bias is I’m trained as a social scientist. I’m a researcher. I want to know how things work, and so one way that we have to do that is to have some measurement to how we measure that what we’re doing is what we think that we’re doing. I’d be curious, how do you all measure success?

Lannie Davis-Frecker: It is such a good question. One of things that we knew is that we had this history full of “success,” and I put success in quotes, but none of us could quantify why. We had all these feel good stories, and we knew what people were getting, but we didn’t really have metrics that could showcase over the years what we’ve done. Part of, when we started to partner with the Drexel Fund, they really helped us think through what success looks like at Julie Billiart Schools, because anyone will tell you that the metrics for measuring a child with a special learning need, or a social need, or possibly an anxiety disorder, it’s really, really hard. There really isn’t a good metric out there. We started to really think, if we’re a whole child approach to education, we need a whole child approach to success, and how to measure it.

And really measure the children against themselves, not against always what is typical in the public school and that curriculum. We do have an academic curriculum, we do the MAPS assessments, and those are predictive assessments. They help us figure out exactly where the child is within the curriculum. We also do parent surveys to understand how success looks from the parent’s perspective. We have talked about doing quality of life. We do now have social assessments that we use. We do have behavior assessments that we use. We have speech assessments that we use. One of the biggest champions of this area has been Dr. Tom Frazier, who’s on our board of directors. He is the chief science officer for Autism Speaks.

Mike McShane: Oh wow.

Lannie Davis-Frecker: We are so lucky to have him on our board. We are so lucky to actually employ his wife as our BCBA. She is very driven by data, as well. This all came together and they really have created a different comprehensive model for what success looks like for a child with special needs. We’re really proud of it, and this is the first year we’re taking data and eventually we’ll be able to aggregate it and compare it across the schools, and across the network. Hopefully, there would be other schools out there that might be able to adapt something like this so that we can get a really good clear picture if we are serving children the way that we have set out to serve them.

Mike McShane: That’s fantastic. You know, I think there’s something interesting that I would be interested to get your thoughts on, specifically, the role that faith plays. I mean, something that sets your schools apart is the role that faith plays in undergirding all of it. Part of me wonders, again, as someone who used to be a teacher, who encounters these things, is that especially when it comes to students with special needs. The way that the world judges them, the questions that are asked are sort of, “Oh, will they be able to get a job,” or “Will they be able to mainstreamed into a classroom?”

It seems to me that faith and a broad number of faith traditions, are much more concerned about what type of person we are and how we treat other people, and how we view the world. It seems to me, many of the students that I encountered, some with profound special needs, they were on the autism spectrum, or they had Down’s syndrome, others. I joke with those, they are demonstrably better people than I am.

Lannie Davis-Frecker: Oh, absolutely.

Mike McShane: They’re kinder, they are much more positive … I mean, they’re so many things, and so I wonder, but part of that it’s difference to disentangle from a faith perspective of, these are the things that human beings are supposed to be, of kind to one another and loving, et cetera. These children are the absolutely epitome of that. I was wondering how you all think through that sort of, maybe I’m crazy for thinking that, or that that isn’t a connection that’s made between them, but I would love to know how you think about that.

Lannie Davis-Frecker: Oh, absolutely. I agree 100%. I mean, I think I learn daily. I’m humbled daily by our kids, but I learn daily from them. I learn from them because of their purity of faith. That they understand that God is love and God loves them. What better message and what better life lesson is that? Oftentimes, they stop me in my tracks from being very much … We’re supposed to be forward thinking and we’re supposed to be these visionaries, and we’re supposed to be leading, so I get really wrapped up in that.

The students really ground me. They really help me remember that it’s in the moments that we have opportunities to love one another, and treat one another differently. Our saying, St. Julie always said, “God is good all the time.” Every morning when we do announcements, our principal will say, “God is good.” The kids would respond, “All the time.” Throughout the school day, throughout the school year, they’re finding God’s goodness in one another. They actually have to write it down when they saw God’s goodness alive in someone else. They’re so much better at it.

Mike McShane: I know, right? This is so … Yes.

Lannie Davis-Frecker: Than we are as adults, but than, we are as people and I still attribute it to when they walk through that front door of our school, they know they are one of God’s children. Whoever God is to them, or whatever faith tradition they have, they know they are loved. They know they are part of our school, and they’re part of something bigger than themselves. I think they are grateful, I think they have found hope, and I think that they are very happy children that feel loved. God’s love manifested in us is extremely amazing. It is alive and kids see it different than we do, as adults. It’s just very humbling.

Mike McShane: For sure.

Lannie Davis-Frecker: I want to be like them.

Mike McShane: No, totally. That makes two of us. I have to say, there’s no other place I’d rather end this than on that note. Lannie Davis-Frecker, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today. I really appreciate it.

Lannie Davis-Frecker: You are so welcome. Thank you for wanting to share the word and the good news about Julie Billiart Schools.

Mike McShane: Awesome, take care.

Lannie Davis-Frecker: Thank you, God bless.

Mike McShane: I hope everybody enjoyed that conversation as much as I did. I know we went on a bit of a tear there at the end. As you can probably tell, educating students with special needs is something that is a passion of mine and honestly, just treating people with special needs, children with special needs, adults with special needs, better, is something that I think that our society needs to do. Hearing from someone who works day in and day out with students with special needs and just the great gifts that they are in her life. I think is something that even if you’re not interested in school choice, or even if you’re not interested in those things, really sort of reflecting on what that means and how we talk about special education in America, how we talk about programs that are designed to help students with special needs, I think would make us all better people, better policy analysts, better researchers, et cetera.

We really come to respect and understand these fellow members of our community. Lots of interesting stuff too, talking about scaling up and intersecting with public policy. I think there was a lot to chew on in that podcast that I will be thinking about for a very long time. If you all need more stuff to think about, what you should do is subscribe to our podcast. If you leave reviews, that’s even better.

But you know what? Even this week, I’m just going to ask, just subscribe to the podcast. We put out tons of great content on here, not just about cool schools, though, we do put out our fair share of those, but talk about recent developments in school choice, cutting-edge research that either our team is doing or other researchers are doing, and that we can bring in an interview for it.

Folks are usually game for that, which we appreciate. Lots of great content for that. If listening is not your thing, I get it. It’s not necessarily what everybody’s into, you can sign up for our email list. You can get the written word, which I certainly appreciate as one who generates many of them. Sign up for our email list. Lots of great content that’s available there, too. You can manage what type of stuff you’re interested in and we will cater directly to you, dear listener, the types of information that you want.

As always, I love to know more about cool schools. I don’t have the ability to be in every city and every state. Some of the schools that we’ve been profiling recently are folks who’ve listened to the podcasts and sent me an email, and said, “Hey, you really need to check out this school, they’re doing something interesting.” Please feel free to do that. Give me a tweet @mq_mcshane, shoot me an email, send it to somebody you know. Actually, really send it to anybody at EdChoice, maybe it would just be an interesting thing. I’ll get an email, I no idea why I got this email, but this school sounds kind of cool. That’ll be our vetting process. Thanks for listening and we’ll talk to you next time.