By Tanya Sheckley, MBA ’09
When our oldest child, Eliza, started kindergarten, our family was still looking for a primary school that would give her the life skills and education she needed to be successful. We had worked with international specialists and learned about brain development, child development and basic neuroscience. We’d considered what personal attributes were likely to be valued in coming decades, as artificial intelligence eliminates most current jobs and brings new ones into being that are difficult to imagine. With no school offering the type of education we were seeking, we set out to create one.
Eliza was born with cerebral palsy, which meant that she couldn’t walk, talk or participate meaningfully in most activities without help and support. It did not mean that she lacked intelligence or curiosity. She was observant and remembered small details from everything she’d heard and read. She was kind and strong and always did her best. Tragically, she passed away before the school would open.
There are many ways to honor a life. As I’ve written elsewhere, I struggled to function again after losing Eliza, and I honored her first of all by allowing myself time and space to grieve. Having founded our organization in 2015, the year before Eliza’s death, we ultimately chose to honor her by continuing our work toward a school for students with and without physical disabilities. Our goal had always been for it to be a place for all children to thrive, and her younger sister and brother are helping us to achieve that goal as students at the academy. Up Academy, an elementary lab school for the inclusion of students with physical disabilities in San Mateo, California, began working with its first students in September 2018.
In the early planning stages of the school, I went to a conference on brain injury and heard a talk by Ramona Pierson, former CEO of Declara. Years ago, she was struck by a car, stayed in a coma for 18 months, and was totally blind for a period of 11 years until experimental surgery restored her sight. At that time, she noticed that everything around her had changed – business, technology, design – everything except schools. In contrast, most schools remained as Sir Ken Robinson described them in his book Creative Schools (2015). They still operated on a model meant to produce workers for industrial assembly lines, with their hours adapted to agriculture so that students could do their chores and then go learn what they needed for jobs in manufacturing.
How do we change education for our changing world?
According to the World Economic Forum 2022 Skills Outlook, abilities such as creativity, analytical thinking and emotional intelligence are and will be in increasing demand. At Up Academy, we focus on student agency and on skills, not content. Our students learn to find and analyze information, to create their own projects around areas of interest, to work together to solve problems, and to influence action in their school and community. Perhaps most importantly, we encourage students to use their emotional intelligence, supporting their growth and humanity.
The majority of people with disabilities are of average or above average general intelligence, just like the rest of the human population. Today’s advances in technology, the most rapid in history, mean that people with disabilities increasingly will be able to demonstrate their strengths without special accommodations. That is, a person who cannot walk soon will be able to take a driverless car to any destination, no longer limited to the routes of public transportation. Using a virtual reality headset, she may be able to perform surgery regardless of her manual dexterity – robots are already doing surgery by remote control – if she has the right education.
Our school is poised to be part of a change in which all people are viewed as capable, valuable and able to contribute meaningfully in the world. We are working to create a world where humans can work together to address our biggest problems, and where they can design architecture, business and community for the benefit of all. They will be equipped with the critical thinking, problem-solving and ideation skills necessary to be successful in middle school and beyond. It starts in kindergarten.
Tanya Sheckley is founder of Up Academy, an elementary lab school for the inclusion of students with physical disabilities. She is a social entrepreneur, writer and national speaker on topics relating to education, disabilities, parenting and grief. Visit upacademysf.org.