A longtime private facility in Bartlett specializing in educating children and young adults with learning and developmental disabilities is moving to downtown Wheaton.
The Bartlett Learning Center's Clare Woods Academy will open to students Aug. 22 at its new location in the former St. John's Lutheran Church School at Main Street and Seminary Avenue.
The not-for-profit organization spent its first 44 years in a building that was built in the 1960s as a junior college for women who would become nuns.
"Our lease had run out, and the building in Bartlett was not suitable anymore. It was technologically obsolete," Principal John Utterback said. "This was the best available site after looking at several, and we're delighted to be here."
Development Director Linda Frye-Danner said the Wheaton facility was selected because it was already a school and needed little retrofitting. The building also is about the same size as the school's previous home but includes slightly larger classrooms, a full-length gym and a stage.
"Our (old) gymnasium was a gathering room for (the postulants) whenever they had events. It had 10-foot ceilings and a tile floor, so there wasn't much basketball being played. Having an open space for the gym is just fabulous," Frye-Danner said. "Our stage was just a nicely built wooden riser that the kids stood on as opposed to being on an actual stage with a curtain and lights."
Utterback said the prime location in downtown Wheaton also was a factor.
"The facility wouldn't have been nearly as attractive without the closeness to all of the training opportunities our students need. They need safety training and mobility training in communities, and rather than get on a bus, we can walk," he said. "The library is across the street, and there are restaurants within a couple blocks. All the things we need to teach them how to do are now right here at our doorstep."
The school will open with 82 staff members and about 85 students, many who fall on the autism spectrum and have cognitive disabilities. The students come from more than 30 school districts.
"We're hoping to be back to 100 (students). We had a 15 percent reduction in enrollment with the move, but we're hopeful the districts east of here will get to know us better," Utterback said. "Right now we draw from Glenview to Belvidere and Gurnee to Joliet, so there are no limits. We're limited only by (the families') willingness to transport students and access the very specialized service we provide. Some families are willing to travel a very long distance for it."
Frye-Danner said some students join when they are 6 and stay until they are 22, while others only need a "little extra special push" and leave when they're 13 or 14 to rejoin their home school districts.
In addition to the vocational training that begins at age 14 for many students, the school features occupational therapy along with speech and behavioral specialists. Students also experience music, art, specialized P.E., a library and a social life that includes homecoming, prom and a spring play.
"We work very hard to mirror programs they would experience in the public school," Frye-Danner said.
The students also have been allowed into the new school this spring to see the classrooms and their names on their lockers. In the coming days the playground from the old facility will be shipped to the school and reassembled, all in an attempt to help the students transition to their new environment.
"Transition and change is a big hurdle for many of these students to overcome," Utterback said. "The playground (which was designed by the school's occupational therapists) is just another thing they'll remember that will be the same. They all have their favorite swings, you know."
Move: School serves students from more than 30 districts