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Margo Haak runs the Billings Educational Academy

Margo Haak, center, runs the Billings Educational Academy. Here she works with teacher Laure Minow, right, and students Isaiah Morrison and Mariah Willis.

Tiny Billings Educational Academy is poised to grow, and the private, nonprofit school at 1212 Central Ave. has Sir Jim to thank.

Jim Wrightson — “Sir Jim” to his students at the school where he volunteered each day following a long career teaching in the public schools — died in 2010, leaving his $350,000 estate to the school.

Margo Haak, the school’s director, said this week the school has spent $110,000 of his bequest to purchase land to construct a new school at the corner of Rosebud and Lampman drives. The school will celebrate its plans with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the site at 2 p.m. Oct. 18. The public is invited.

“We have made (the current building) our home, but it’s too small,” Haak said of the rented facility where more than 80 percent of the 11 students currently enrolled are diagnosed with Asperger syndrome or another condition along the autism spectrum. “Students need a place where they can stay focused.”

Such a place will require a $700,000 capital campaign, with half the money already raised thanks to Sir Jim. The remainder raised during the campaign will help fund construction of a 4,600-square-foot school, for which plans have already been drawn up. Haak hopes to move in sometime next year. The money to be raised will also pay for educational materials, a playground, paving and other costs.

“The school will be up on a knoll,” she said. “When (the property owner) lowered the price, we jumped at it.”

Home to 3,500 volumes, the new library will be the biggest room at the new academy. All the books will be up on shelves so that children can curl up on the carpet or on a couch and read.

“I just want to enjoy my dream before I get too old,” said Haak, who founded and has directed the school for 13 years without drawing a salary. “We have been on Cloud Nine ever since we bought the land last month. We probably looked at 45 buildings, but none of them was right for one reason or another.”

Once the academy has moved into its new building, Haak hopes to increase student capacity by 50 percent — somewhere between 6-10 students. Each student’s family pays $700 per month in tuition for what is at times individualized attention. Students attend the nonaccredited school from 8 a.m. through 3 p.m. and follow the School District 2 calendar. This year, students ages 8-16 are enrolled.

According to capital campaign documents, the new school will be called the Wrightson Education Center in honor of Sir Jim. “Our goal,” the document states, “is to offer an individualized education program, set in a multi-age, interactive environment.”

The new center will “incorporate separate areas for group learning activities and classrooms as well as specialized classrooms for computer skill development, music, art and a spacious study and library room.” It’ll be “brighter, livelier and appointed with amenities necessary for development of the students in the modern world.”

Parents, students and teachers said they are excited for what the new facility can do for current and future students. Laure Minow, a para-educator at the academy and the mother of a student there, 16-year-old Mariah Willis, said the school has offered her daughter “a customized education fit to her needs. We worked long and hard to find a place where she fits. I kept telling her that autism is not going to deter her from her future.”

“I love it here,” Willis said. “I came here a very shy girl, and this school has 10 nice people (her fellow students). Our teachers really help us.”

Isaiah Morrison-Yerger, 13, said the academy “is not like a public school, where you have to sit at your desk and have no time to do your homework.”

The academy rewarded his efforts in September by naming him student of the month, to which Morrison-Yerger joked, “They ran out of students.”

Like the current academy, the new facility will continue to cater to what Haak called “the different learning styles” that BEA students bring to the classroom each morning.

“The school is guided by the principle that if a child doesn’t learn in the way we teach him, we must teach him in the way that he learns,” she wrote in a letter to prospective capital campaign donors. “BEA has changed the lives of many young people. Students who were typically withdrawn, uncomfortable around others and struggling academically turned themselves around after being here for a while.”

“These kids are my life,” Haak said. “It’s a good thing my husband (Ken) is OK with this. Even when I taught in the public schools, I wanted to open my own school.”

Willis had this optimistic outlook for her future at the academy: “I’m Mariah,” she said, “not a girl with autism.”

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City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.