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Heron School for ‘twice-exceptional’ students

Emily Niehaus and her son Oscar were floating down the Colorado River discussing her plans to open a school for children, such as Oscar, who are both gifted and have a special need or disability.

Mayor Emily Niehaus is working to turn the iconic Sunflower Hill Inn into a private school with a gifted student body.

“What are we going to name the school,” he asked. Just then, a heron flew by and Niehaus was inspired: “How about Heron School?” While a bird in flight might have inspired the name, the reason for founding Heron School was more pragmatic. “One-hundred percent of my inspiration was we either had to move or figure out how to bring resources to Moab to help Oscar become a successful adult,” said Niehaus. She anticipates opening in two years.

Niehaus, the mayor of Moab, and her family have leased the iconic Sunflower Hill Inn on 300 East just north of 100 North. It is a beautiful, quiet and peaceful property featuring the Garden Cottage and the Ranch House, one will be used for the school and boarding house for students and the other will continue to serve overnight renters, with funding from that enterprise helping to get Heron School off the ground and to provide scholarships for eligible students.

Oscar is an engaging young man with a quick smile and the vocabulary and sensibilities of someone much older. He also is autistic and can struggle with high anxiety and is, at times, tormented by classmates.

To be clear, Niehaus has no complaints with the Grand County School District. “GCSD is awesome, and it’s a great school district for our population,” she said. “Moab is rural and remote, and our economy is largely based on tourism, so our school district rocks with what it is able to do. My hope is that Heron School serves as a complement to the school district, because the reality is that not many schools are set up to support 2e learners.”

The term 2e is shorthand for “twice-exceptional,” a designation given to kids like Oscar, who are gifted and ahead of their peers in academics and also have one or more disabilities as defined by educators that merit special education.

These issues, according to the National Association of Gifted Children, range from specific learning disabilities, speech and learning disorders, emotional or behavioral disorders, physical disabilities, autism spectrum, dyslexia, or other impairments, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Gifted learners who also have a disability often go undiagnosed. Either their academic gifts hide their disability until they reach their early teens, or their disability keeps them in special education and their gifts go unnoticed. It is difficult for schools to effectively serve such students, and that’s where Niehaus hopes to come in.

“We’re inviting students who don’t struggle getting good grades, but struggle in a conventional classroom,” she said. There will be one teacher for every four middle or high school students. That tight ratio is designed to address the pitfalls such students experience in a regular school sitting, where the pace can be too slow and the environment overwhelming for them. Only students in grades 9 through 12 will be eligible to board at Heron School.

Students with ADHD, dyslexia, autism and other disabilities can suffer in larger class settings, so Niehaus said limiting the teacher-student ratio to a handful of students for every teacher is a key component. An estimated 0.5% of children under 18 are considered twice-exceptional, roughly 360,000.

“Hopefully, Heron School and its small ratio will provide a mechanism to help unlock the gifts by providing a solid learning environment,” she said.

Niehaus has been working on the project for a year, and now it is being developed. “I hope over the course of the next two years to have a school that serves kids in Moab and a boarding school for kids who don’t live in Moab,” she said.

As for Oscar, “He might still come home from school crying, but he will have a staff to help him move through the challenges and be able to do a deep dive into academics,” said Niehaus. She said she will likely have to look outside of Moab for faculty, for the most part. “Nobody has been hired yet,” she said. “We’ll post a job like everybody else and see who applies.”

Niehaus conceded her skill set isn’t in being an educator, but as a facilitator and someone with expertise in finding the right people to do that job. As Oscar and other students delve into academics, Niehaus will have her own learning to do as the process unfolds.

The school will be year-round rather than the three trimester cycle of Grand County School District, with students in school for nine weeks and then off for three weeks, but those three weeks will be filled with other educational opportunities. Niehaus hopes to collaborate with Canyonlands Field Institute to offer its outdoor educational programs to Heron School students, for example.

Tuition will be on par with other private schools in Utah, she said. She isn’t certain how many students will be able to attend, but she knows there are options if it is overwhelmingly successful. “Once we’re too big for our britches, we’ll likely consider another building,” she said.

In the meantime, Niehaus’s goal is to ensure each student is “given love and space to be their unique selves, a place to feel loved, safe and serene.”

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