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Big Plans

(from left) Danielle Stella-Schall, Fred Moore, Lisa Greco, Dave Butkiewicz, Elsie Stevens, Barbara Butkiewwicz, and Pat Betz stand outside of the Lower Dublin Academy building that will become the Autistic Endeavors Learning Center.

Tacony’s Dave and Barbara Butkiewicz have been working for more than four years to open a school for autistic children.

The couple, who live on Barnett Street, have two sons, including a 10-year-old with autism, a developmental disorder characterized by impaired social interaction and difficulties in communicating. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that nine in 1,000 American children have an autism spectrum disorder.

Brian Butkiewicz was diagnosed at age 2. He received excellent instruction provided by Elwyn, a non-profit human-services organization in Delaware County.

Typically, children ages 3 to 6 receive early-intervention education before moving on to an autistic-support classroom in a public school. The Butkiewiczes, though, believe that one-on-one instruction is preferable. Barbara Butkiewicz is home-schooling her son as part of a cyber charter school. Brian just completed second grade.

“Autistic children need the Rolls Royce of education,” said Dave Butkiewicz, adding that statistics show more than 2,000 students in Philadelphia public schools have been diagnosed with autism. “But it costs a lot of money, and parents can’t afford it.”

In 2007, as Brian was ending his days with Elwyn, his parents founded the Autistic Endeavors Charter School, with the motto, “Putting the puzzle together one piece at a time.” They dreamed of a tuition-free, autistic-support school that provides one-on-one attention.

Initially, they eyed a vacant public-school building in Frankford, They held a beef-and-beer fund-raiser at the old Marsico, with then-NBC 10 news anchorman Larry Mendte as the guest speaker, but the building was too costly to renovate.

Later, they inquired about vacant buildings at St. Anselm, but didn’t have the funds, and St. Bernard, but were outbid.

HOME SWEET HOME

Finally, the couple found a home for their school. Earlier this month they went to settlement on the former Lower Dublin Academy, at 3322 Willits Road. It’s a three-floor building that includes a basement.

The cost is $299,999, and massive renovations are needed because of a 2006 arson fire. Local building trades unions have offered to complete the reconstruction.

Early plans call for 25 children in kindergarten through eighth grade to be educated in five classrooms. The student-teacher ratio will be 1 to 1, and the learning would be year round.

Learning for high-school-age children will come in the near future. Renovations should start in the fall, with a possible opening in May 2012. There is also a garage on site.

“We’re really excited,” Dave Butkiewicz said. “We have to get the doors open. We have to get the kids service. There are so many kids with autism.”

Almost as excited as the Butkiewiczes is the Friends of Lower Dublin Academy. The property once housed a one-room log cabin schoolhouse, built in 1723. By 1798, the existing structure was built, and Lower Dublin Academy was opened. It educated, among others, future military hero Stephen Decatur.

Later, the building was bought by the School District of Philadelphia and remained open until 1925. From about 1940–90, it served as a private residence, then was bought by a developer.

In 1993, a group of Holy Family University students rented the house for a year. A fireworks display on July 4, 1994 caused a fire.

By 2000, a law firm owned the property and made massive renovations. The asking price was too steep, and a fire five years ago made the building a candidate for demolition.

“We needed to preserve this building,” said Fred Moore, president of the Friends of Lower Dublin Academy and the Holmesburg Civic Association.

LOOKING AHEAD

Moore and others in the community are looking forward to the new use.

“We’re elated,” said Elsie Stevens, an active member of Friends of Lower Dublin Academy, Holme Circle Civic Association and the 8th Police District Advisory Council. “It’s wonderful that it will be a school again. That was its original purpose.”

Autistic Endeavors is making outreach to other local groups. It is a member of the Greater Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce and the Mayfair business and civic associations.

The board of directors includes local businesswomen Pat Betz, a Mayfair resident and manager of the Beneficial Bank branch at Tyson and Brous avenues, and Lisa Greco, treasurer of the Mayfair Business Association, a member of the Mayfair Community Development Corp. board, and owner of Bellalisa Hair Studio.

The building is located near Academy Road. It borders Pennypack Woods and the Courtyard of Thomas Holmes apartment complex.

The main exterior issues are roof damage and open windows, along with graffiti and overgrowth. Inside, there is all kinds of debris. It’s been home to homeless people and cats in the last few years.

BIG PROJECTS REMAIN

While local unions are donating services and the state will fund the education, the Butkiewiczes, in addition to absorbing the settlement costs, must provide the money to gut the building and fund certain operating expenses. One revenue producer will be a day-care program for all children.

Autistic Endeavors also has planned several upcoming fund-raisers. There will be a beef-and-beer on Oct. 7 at Cannstatter’s, a golf outing on Oct. 17 at the Torresdale-Frankford Country Club, and a gala ball in April 2012 at the Ritz-Carlton in Center City. Another possible benefit will be a Texas Hold-’Em tournament at the Penn Crisp Gym.

The staff will consist of people with patience and passion and the ability to deliver tender loving care.

One of the early teaching hires is Danielle Stella-Schall, a recent Temple University graduate who is certified in special and elementary education. She is looking forward to collaborating with parents and offering individual attention. She respects the Butkiewiczes for pursuing a better education for their son and other children with autism.

“It’s amazing what they’re doing. I’m inspired by their story,” she said. “It’s very exciting. The kids will come here and get services at no cost to the family. The school will focus on getting them to function in school and out of school and to lead independent lives.”

Barbara Butkiewicz, a registered nurse, will serve as school president and board secretary. Her husband will be the CEO and board chairman. Neither will be paid. An executive director will be hired.

The renovated building will include a kitchen, cafeteria, office space, reception area and two outdoor decks.

“It’s going to be nice,” Dave Butkiewicz said.

In addition, the couple will reach out to the nearby Thomas Holme Elementary School in hopes that the students of Autistic Endeavors will be able to use the public school’s gym and library, visit the nurse and have an occasional lunch with the kids at Holme.

“To integrate the kids is a fabulous concept,” Dave Butkiewicz said. ••

For more information, call 215–360–1568 or visit www.autisticendeavors.org

Reporter Tom Waring can be reached at 215–354–3034 or twaring@bsmphilly.com

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