Today’s education entrepreneurs are as unique as the learning environments they create. Many are parents seeking a better fit for their own children or teachers wanting the autonomy to teach the way they think is best. In the case of Dragonfly Academy in Las Vegas, it was a grandmother who stepped up to create a place where neurodivergent children could learn and thrive.
Anita Williams is a licensed clinical mental health therapist whose grandchildren have been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and ADHD. Because of her professional background, Anita was able to help her daughter find the right specialists. But even with her knowledge, it was difficult to navigate the system and get her grandchildren the help they needed. When Anita and her daughter met with her grandson’s teacher and principal, Anita could tell they weren’t equipped to meet his needs.
They decided to try homeschooling, which was difficult but did relieve some of the stress of dealing with the school district. Anita began learning more about autism and the autism spectrum. She and her husband eventually decided to open a learning center specifically for neurodiverse individuals. At Dragonfly, Anita says, “an individual education plan is actually an individual education plan. It’s not a copy and paste from one child to another. It’s giving them what they need and focusing on their interests.” If a child has speech therapy, occupational therapy, or any other therapies that the family is happy with, those therapies can take place right at Dragonfly.
Anita initially planned for Dragonfly Academy to be a private school, but after bumping into bureaucratic red tape she reconsidered her options. She’d met Don and Ashley Soifer of the National Microschooling Center, and they told her about microschools. “I’ve been sold on this innovative, non‐traditional education movement ever since,” she says. Students who attend Dragonfly must register as homeschoolers with the state of Nevada.
Using the homeschool/microschool model gives Anita a lot of autonomy and flexibility with Dragonfly Academy. This is essential because her goal is to create a learning environment that appeals to a variety of neurodiverse children. By incorporating play therapy, sandtray therapy, art, and music therapy, Dragonfly students can learn, develop, and thrive with their peers.
For this school year, Dragonfly Academy will meet Monday through Thursday from 10:00 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. Learners can attend all four days or just two days per week (Mon/Wed or Tue/Thu) with tuition adjusted accordingly. They plan to have field trips one or two Fridays a month. Parents can volunteer for 10 hours a month at Dragonfly in exchange for a lower tuition rate. Limited financial assistance is also available.
An occupational therapist who leases a room from Anita for her private practice also works with Dragonfly students. Each morning there is an optional 30‐minute “Movement with Miss Mallory” session at 9:30. Then the kids have some self‐directed time before they get together for a morning meeting. Anita wants the students to be active participants in their learning journey, so she gives them several options throughout the day for group activities in addition to the self‐directed time.
“Therapeutic schools are not new; I haven’t reinvented the wheel,” Anita says. “But this model has a unique twist to it because a lot of times therapeutic schools are boarding schools—children may stay there months or weeks or Monday through Friday and go home on the weekends. My concept is for these needs to be met on a daily basis and then for the children to go home with their families.”
Anita wants to keep the learning environment at Dragonfly Academy small so she can continue to provide truly individualized learning for each student, but she can see having two or three locations so she can help more kids. Because while her motivation was initially to help her own grandchildren, Anita is passionate about taking what she’s learned and using it to help other neurodiverse children as well.