Kim Hufferd-Ackles (PhD99) Starts School for Complex Learners, Rooted in Work at SESP

Kim Hufferd-Ackles (PhD99) Starts School for Complex Learners, Rooted in Work at SESP

Kim Hufferd-Ackles

After completing her doctoral program at SESP, Kim Hufferd-Ackles (PhD99) knew she understood deep and meaningful learning. A few years later, when her fourth child was diagnosed with autism, she put her education expertise to the test by founding a school for complex learners in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Prior to starting the school, called Open Wings Learning Community, Hufferd-Ackles had served as co-principal of Skokie School in Winnetka. Working in that progressive district solidified her thinking about how to set up school environments for deep and meaningful learning, and she was ready for the next step.

Seeing that students with complex needs often fall through the cracks in public schools and frequently are not welcomed at private schools, she got the idea to found a school focused on the individual learner. She researched, visited schools and contemplated “how to take all the things I’d been thinking about and use them for kids who are complex learners.”

The result was Open Wings, a progressive school that focuses on the individual learner, experiential education and teaching to the whole child. Now in its second year, the nonprofit private elementary school has 11 students, with plans to increase the enrollment by five to eight children a year.

“Many of the kids are incredibly complex. We have to work to find what motivates them and design programs around that,” says Hufferd-Ackles, both the executive director of Open Wings and an adjunct instructor in the SESP Master of Science in Education program. For example, Open Wings students might learn mathematics by building a castle or running a train, or learn science by setting up a fish tank.

Plenty of field trips provide experiential learning as well. Mailing letters at the post office, making scarves for homeless people, visiting museums and making change for the local trolley — all serve as learning opportunities and show the children they can have an impact in the community. 

“This is the most challenging and gratifying thing I’ve done in my career,” says Hufferd-Ackles of Open Wings. “It’s challenging because you really have to figure these kids out.” As part of its program, the school incorporates multiple types of therapy by partnering with the local public school and with outside agencies.

In the end, what makes the school gratifying for Hufferd-Ackles is that “these kids are getting what they need.” Importantly, she appreciates the progress her students have made in reading as all are beginning readers now. In addition, she is pleased that families are finding their lives are different, especially by regaining family time in the evening because the school provides needed therapy. She’s especially proud of the reports of parents, such as one parent who told her, “My daughter walks tall.”

Hufferd-Ackles explains her success by saying, “If children are comfortable, they’re going to learn. If you build on current learning, they’re going to learn.”

Primarily, Hufferd-Ackles sees her accomplishment anchored in SESP’s Human Development and Social Policy program (HDSP). “I don’t think I would have had the confidence if I hadn’t had roots in HDSP and what real learning is about.” Furthermore, her understanding of “real assessment” hearkens to HDSP, where she worked closely with professor Karen Fuson on mathematics teaching and learning. “The time I spent at HDSP was revolutionary in terms of understanding deep and meaningful learning,” she emphasizes.

Hufferd-Ackles sees Open Wings as having impact for other educators. “Our research, learning and reflection can benefit others,” she notes. For one thing, she points out that the population of complex learners is growing rapidly, and is a factor in all classrooms. Hufferd-Ackles cautions against seeing Open Wings Learning Community as an autism or special needs school since the school has an array of learners including students with ADHD and gifted learners. "The balance in the learning community allows everyone to help each other learn and to see things from multiple perspectives," she says.

More than one approach is essential for reaching different learners, she emphasizes. “It’s important to start with young kids to build their confidence. See them as capable learners and figure out how to motivate them. Build around their talents and gifts.”

Primarily, her advice to other educators is this: “Create a diverse community of learners. That dynamic feeds a school.”

By Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 12/5/13