Former high school dropout perseveres, overcomes, and will open inclusive school that welcomes students with autism

Gretchen Stewart focused her dissertation on research that would inform the model for Smart Moves Academy, involving more than 40 experts in brain development, learning, cognition and movement in her quest to assist children with autism. The new school is set to open in 2022.

“There was one event that triggered me to create the private school I had always thought about over my career. It came one day when my son came home and said to me, ‘Mom, I’m a weird kid.’ That broke me, and for a time, it broke him too. ”  – Gretchen Stewart

Gretchen Stewart is the founder of Smart Moves Academy, an inclusive private school launching in the Tampa Bay area with a vision to ignite the mind through movement. The school’s model will optimize brain performance through physical activity for lifelong learning, health, fitness, and emotional well-being. Stewart has been named a Drexel Fellow and received a grant from the national non-profit foundation to further develop her plan and open the school in 2022. The school will accept scholarships administered by Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog. Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Gretchen Stewart

Q. You received your undergraduate degree in political science, government and Spanish at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. What were you planning to do at that time and what prompted you to pursue education instead?

A: I dropped out of high school at age 16. Looking back with the understandings I have now, I was at risk for school failure from the start of my school career as a kindergartner. My family background included many risk factors associated with school failure, and the city I lived in had de-facto segregated schools, low expectations for racial minorities, and in general, a profile of low achievement for children from low-income families.

When I finally understood that education could mean a way forward out of those circumstances, I wanted to try to go to college. At age 21, I earned an adult high school diploma and conditional entrance into a university. Being a conditional student meant I had to make up coursework to prove I could make it academically at the college level. During that time, I worked two jobs, one washing dishes in the cafeteria at my residence hall, and the other at the law school, as a mock client for the grad students to practice client intakes with.

It was here that I gained an interest in the work of an attorney and decided to take classes to prepare me for law school. I was all set, until life stepped in and changed my plans.  I was close to graduation when I was in a bad automobile accident. I had to quit my job and move off campus in order to focus on recovery. It was incredible that I was able to finish my senior year and graduate. In the process, however, I had to let preparing for the law school entrance exam fall to the wayside.

As I thought about what to do next, a good friend told me she never really saw me as a lawyer, but instead thought I’d make a great teacher. She handed me a green piece of paper with instructions on how to apply to a graduate program that would pay half of the cost for a master’s degree, train me to be a teacher, get me licensed, and guarantee a teaching job in Minneapolis Public Schools for at least five years. I consulted my family and friends, and to my surprise, everyone agreed that they had always felt education was a good fit for me.

I had never considered it, mainly because of my early struggles in school, but somehow, the universe took over and pointed me toward teaching. I was extremely lucky to be accepted to the Collaborative Urban Educator program at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, right out of college. The CUE program was an intensive year of teacher preparation that led to full licensure and my first job teaching fifth grade at an urban, art-infused public elementary school. In my third year of teaching, I became the first ever probationary teacher to reach Elementary Teacher of the Year finalist.

I found that I loved teaching; I excelled at it, and I was driven and inspired by working with children who were my age when I started to fall through the cracks of school. I was very focused on doing everything I could to prevent a single student of mine from experiencing school failure. My classroom became known for being a creative, fun, and rigorous environment where everyone could excel.

For myself, I developed a new sense about what it means to be a valuable contributor to something greater than myself. There is no satisfaction for me like that which comes from a hardworking parent who is grateful to you for guiding their child to success in school after ongoing struggles with learning, achievement, and social relationships.

Q. You have extensive experience in educating students with learning differences. What influenced you to go in that direction? Also, please tell us about the nonprofit organization you founded, Top of the Spectrum.

A: Harkening back to my first teaching job at the arts school, we had a regional classroom at our school for students with the most severe behaviors in the district. I would walk by that classroom and try to peek in. I would wonder about the students and the teachers, whom I rarely saw and who seemed to be a bit separate from everything else. That separation bothered me in many ways.

So, I began to befriend the teacher and the aides in the classroom. I started asking questions to learn more, and we became friends. One day, the teacher of that classroom asked me if would consider having one of her students come to my class for reading instruction. I was thrilled and gave an emphatic yes. I was so excited to see if I could work successfully with a child who was labeled with the most intensive of special needs. I’ll never forget that young man and our time together with him in my classroom. He became a model student in reading and was able to mentor younger readers. His success was hard earned, and his reputation changed, and he felt a part of our class.

The power of inclusion and belonging is incredible in terms of it being a catalyst for community and achievement. Everyone benefited from him being in our class. So, I became drawn to the idea of inclusion and its impact on learning. I also wanted to learn as much as I could about the root cause of learning differences and behavioral challenges. I went back to school and gained a second master’s degree this in Special Education. I then earned teacher certified in K-12 Learning and Behavioral Disabilities and began teaching as a special education teacher.

Shifting gears, On Top of the Spectrum is a non-profit organization in Tampa with the mission of expanding inclusive opportunities for young people. At age 3 my son was labeled with autism and other developmental differences. My life with him and the son that I later adopted who has Down Syndrome, as well as my school experience, has inspired me to work to create more inclusive communities.

I found as a parent that it was no simple task to do what comes simply to many others, like enrolling my kid in a karate class. Most of the time, the instructors are not knowledgeable on how to adapt to include kids who don’t respond to a single method of teaching. That means having to leave our community to search for any place that is accepting and prepared to engage a child who simply wants to be included and have fun learning for example, karate. Many times, those places do not exist, and it’s difficult to explain that to a child. So, we set about to change that and help prepare people to welcome anyone who comes through their doors as an opportunity to build stronger communities.

We created On Top of the Spectrum to focus on health and fitness because as children with special needs leave the school system as young adults, there is very little opportunity for them to be included in activities that nurture lifelong health and fitness. We work with gyms and personal trainers to enable them to train a wider range of people effectively, including people with autism. We also strive to increase access to outdoor adventures that have a physical element for people with developmental differences. In 2023 we are taking a diverse, inclusive group of young people to Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest free-standing mountain in the world. Some of our participants have been training for the past two years to be able to accomplish such an incredible personal challenge, all the while improving their personal health and fitness, inspiring the gyms they train at, and being fully included in the communities they train within.

Q. Tell me about your first experience teaching. How did it influence your career later? After years working in district schools, what influenced your decision to go out on your own?

A. My first teaching experience was in a unique public school in the heart of Minneapolis. Our students spoke 35 different languages and most lived at or below the poverty line. The school was art infused, meaning our students had access to curriculum and activities that were arts focused. For instance, I spent a few years working in collaboration with a professional dancer to create math curriculum that was taught through dance. This was important for our students because we faced a very real language barrier when trying to teach mathematics in English to students who did not speak English.

I was very fortunate to have had a wonderful principal in my first years of teaching that invited us as professionals to experiment to find what really worked in terms of individual student progress. I believe I had the very best possible start to my teaching career that I could have had. As I gained teaching experience and shifted from general education to special education, I expanded my teaching certifications to include more age ranges and subject matter, taught from kindergarten to high school, taught in a charter school, served as an assistant principal, and then went on the to the state department of education in a technical assistance role.

After that, I became an executive director of curriculum and instruction pre-K through 12 in a district serving about 25,000 students and families. Throughout my career, my focus remained singular in terms of my philosophy that innovative, inclusive education is the driver of the type of change in our world that I want to see. I want to see a world in which we don’t have to orchestrate inclusion, because it occurs naturally. This is important because the development of intellect depends on feeling and being safe to take academic risks within a supportive learning community.

In going out on my own to create something new, there are many reasons that I felt like I could not get change I wanted to see in education to occur on a large scale. I am a product and champion of public education, not so much as it is, but as it has the potential to be. As a parent of school aged children, I struggled with the lack of a meaningful education my children experienced in public school.

There was one event that triggered me to create the private school I had always thought about over my career. It came one day when my son came home and said to me, “Mom, I’m a weird kid.” That broke me, and for a time, it broke him too. He no longer wanted to go to school. I could no longer escape that this is not what should be happening in schools for children, and that we simply cannot keep doing things in ways that result in any child feeling like they don’t have a safe place of belonging in which to grow academically and socially. There were other issues that tipped the scale for me too, like the persistent achievement gaps in schools between differing racial and socioeconomic groups of kids, the loss of excellent teachers due to systemic wrongs, and archaic, sedentary systems of instruction.

Q. Congratulations on receiving support from the Drexel Fund. How did you learn about the organization and how is it helping you embark on this new adventure?

A. I am still in awe that I was one of just three chosen from among more than 250 applicants to become a Drexel School fellow this year. I learned about the Drexel Fund by googling, “grants for private school start up.” I came across them in 2019 and attended an informational meeting that was held at Step Up for Students. After I attended that meeting, Drexel reached out to me and let me know they had an interest in helping me launch my school.

So, while completing my Ph.D. at the University of South Florida, I started taking some early steps to prepare myself to be a competitive candidate. I worked on establishing the non-profit for the school, getting some professional development in the brain and learning, visiting other models, and having conversations about school start up with experienced people. For me, the fellows program allows me to work full-time on launching Smart Moves Academy.

Drexel helps seed private schools like mine by providing individualized resources to help fellows launch successful schools. As a fellow I get access to other school entrepreneurs that have been running high performing and successful private schools, executive coaching, and workshops to help me prepare a sustainable business plan. It’s wonderful to be surrounded by inspirational and visionary people who are doing the same work that I am.

Q. What type of research did you participate in at the University of South Florida and how it did help you develop this model?

A. At USF I focused my dissertation on research that would inform the model for Smart Moves Academy. My research involved more than 40 experts in brain development, learning, cognition and movement. The group was selected because of the members’ knowledge in the practical application of teaching strategies that embrace physical movement as a lever to optimize the brain in positive ways that impact learning. The results of my mixed methods study revealed a set of 27 elements that the experts felt should be present in an inclusive school where movement is a central part of how all students maximize their potential.

For me as a parent and as an educator, the most exciting of these strategies coming to life at Smart Moves Academy include daily neurodevelopmental movement, more rather than less recess, outdoor learning, and hands-on, active academics that align well with what we know about how the brain learns. When you combine these approaches inside of a well-designed and supported inclusive environment, you get our school.

Q. There are many schools that specialize in helping students on the autism spectrum. What will set Smart Moves Academy apart from the others?

A. Smart Moves Academy pairs engaging, rigorous academics with continuous development of the biological foundations critical to learning and social emotional well-being. We do this through movement. There is no other inclusive school in the United States that does this. For students that come to us with a label of autism, we can’t help but be very excited.

The research base of our neurodevelopmental approach is stunning when it comes to helping students with autism reach their potential and open doors to goals that may have been unreachable in the past. The inclusive model at Smart Moves Academy cannot be understated in terms of supporting a student with autism. Our school environment creates an authentic sense of belonging and safety for each student, thereby growing the self-confidence and perseverance needed for deep intellectual and character growth, as well as the formation of lasting friendships.