Marklund expansion aimed at helping more kids with autism

Shellise Janus tried to have her son with Down syndrome and autism attend public school.

But by the time Jordan Janus was a third-grader, it became clear to his mother that a traditional classroom wasn't appropriate for him.

“Jordan has pretty moderate to severe autism,” the Carpentersville mother said. “It was just more than they (his former teachers) could handle. He was in a classroom with nine children and they had four aides in there. And it was still unmanageable for them.”

She says Jordan needed more intensive and focused attention. Community Unit District 300 agreed to enroll him in a special school.

Now at 13, the youngster is attending Marklund's Life Skills Academy in Bloomingdale.

Shellise Janus says the school, which provides specialized support to students diagnosed on the autism spectrum, has been “a good fit” for her son.

So it comes as no surprise that she and other parents say they're thrilled about Marklund's plans to spend $4 million to construct a nearly 12,000-square-foot addition. The structure would allow Marklund to expand the Life Skills Academy.

However, neighbors of the Bloomingdale campus are opposed to the expansion. About 25 residents who attended a recent public hearing complained about traffic, stormwater drainage and other issues.

“I understand the need for expansion to help children,” resident Chris Colwell said during a Nov. 19 plan commission meeting. “But I just don't think this is a good one from a traffic standpoint.”

Bloomingdale village officials will decide in the coming weeks whether to give Marklund permission to do the project.

If the village grants approval, Marklund officials say construction could start in the spring. The facility, which would open in January 2015, would allow Marklund to partner with Wheaton College to open the academy's enrollment to more students from Cook, Kane, DuPage, Lake and Will counties.

“This is going to be a state-of-art school built for children with autism,” said Gilbert Fonger, president and CEO of Marklund. “It's going to give us more capabilities to handle children who are along the autism spectrum. It's also going to allow us to add more children to the program.”

Marklund, a nonprofit organization that aids people with severe and profound disabilities, was founded in the 1950s by Claire and Stanley Haverkampf.

The Haverkampfs provided foster care for an infant named Mark William Lund, who was born with Down syndrome and severe cardiac complications. That experience inspired the couple to foster more children with special needs. In 1957, they opened a building in Bloomingdale that's now known as the Marklund Children's Home.

In addition to the children's home and the academy, the Bloomingdale campus along South Prairie Avenue is the location of the Marklund Day School, a facility for children with medical, developmental, and physical disabilities. Marklund also operates a campus for adults in Geneva.

Marklund officials say the Life Skills Academy opened in January 2010 to give students with autism an opportunity “to participate in functional and meaningful activities within a highly structured environment.”

Fonger said the program is needed because one out of every 88 children are being diagnosed along the autism spectrum. “This school brings another resource to the community,” he said.

The academy offers a modified curriculum for its students, who are ages 3 to 21. They take classes adapted to their abilities and use the latest technology, including iPads and SMART Boards, officials said.

Students are enrolled into Marklund's program by their school districts, which pay their tuition and provide transportation to and from the academy. Right now, Marklund accepts students from 23 districts.

Marklund officials have long wanted to grow their program to take in additional students from more districts.

But the money to expand wasn't available until Marklund received a $3.5 million donation from the Haskins Foundation. Wheaton College got a similar gift from the foundation to train teachers in special education, according to Fonger.

Marklund's proposed two-story facility — dubbed the Ann Haskins Center — would have seven classrooms, therapy rooms, offices and a large multipurpose space. There also would be observation rooms that parents and educators can use to view what's happening in each classroom.

The expansion is expected to create about 40 new jobs, including teaching positions. And Wheaton College is planning to send student volunteers who will get practical training by assisting teachers at the academy.

Fonger said the hope is to increase the academy's existing enrollment by about 50 students. He said he believes more school districts would welcome the opportunity to partner with Marklund.

“It's very complex handling children that have autism,” he said. “Sometimes, even school districts need a little bit of help.”

While students forgo a public school experience to attend the Life Skills Academy, Fonger said Marklund partners with school districts to address the specific needs of those children. “Our goal is really to work with the school districts and, when possible, to get those children back to public school.”

  Marklund, a nonprofit organization that aids people with severe and profound disabilities, was founded by Stanley and Claire Haverkampf. Daniel White/
  Marklund’s Life Skills Academy in Bloomingdale provides specialized support to suburban students diagnosed on the autism spectrum. Daniel White/
  Marklund wants to construct a nearly 12,000-square-foot addition to its Life Skills Academy in Bloomingdale. Plans call for the two-story structure to have classrooms, therapy rooms, offices and a large multipurpose space. Daniel White/
  Gilbert Fonger, Marklund’s president and CEO, observes Bartosz K. who uses an iPad in his platform therapy swing at the Marklund’s Life Skills Academy in Bloomingdale. Daniel White/
  Marklund hopes to break ground in the spring on a $4 million addition to its Bloomingdale campus. But first, the project needs to get approval from the village. The town’s plan commission is reviewing Marklund’s request. Daniel White/
The proposed Ann Haskins Center would allow Marklund to expand its Life Skills Academy in Bloomingdale. Courtesy of Marklund
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