Orion Academy’s new home just part of improved experience

Orion Academy’s new home just part of improved experience

Orion Academy’s new home just part of improved experience
Dylan Polugar-Laub teaches math at Orion Academy’s new Concord location. To facilitate greater focus from autistic students, Orion designed the classrooms to be free of distractions – like colorful posters with motivating messages that are common in other school environments. (Photo by David Scholz)

CONCORD, CA (May 18, 2023) — Students with unique needs now have the space to spread their wings and pursue their educational dreams much like their school’s mythological namesake, Orion – a Boeotian giant famed as a great hunter.

And, the learning isn’t just limited to the larger and brighter classrooms. The downtown Concord streets surrounding Orion Academy’s new home are providing life lessons no textbook or instructor could ever teach.

School officials, staff, students and alumni celebrated the new location along Clayton Road with an open house on April 1. Previously located in Moraga, Orion Academy is regarded as a national model as a college-prep high school for the autistic community.

The vision is that access to Orion’s program will now be more available to students via public transportation, since the school is within walking distance of the downtown BART station.

“We have a location to reach even more people who would benefit from our programs and resources,” said founder Dr. Kathryn Stewart, a leading autism expert and author.

“We want to educate and support this community throughout their lives. Now we can do that,” she continued.

Doubling the space

Orion, founded in 2000, serves a niche of gifted students who possess great potential that the area’s mainstream public school education environment neither is equipped to serve nor able to give full focus. It began with just eight students and four teachers, with the support of parents who saw a great need.

It was the first school in the country to offer a tailored program for college-bound students on the autism spectrum. Families have traveled from as far as New Mexico, Oregon and Washington to attend Orion Academy, as well as throughout the Bay Area.

School officials purchased the 16,000-plus sq. ft. property from Church of the Nazarene three years ago for about $3 million. They invested about a half a million dollars, and counting as fundraising continues, to obtain better technology and security, along with clean and quiet, sound-absorbing floors and interior walls ready for occupancy a year ago.

Whereas Moraga offered more outdoor space for the students, it’s the great indoors of the Concord site – double the size of the previous home – that has made it a welcome upgrade for students and teachers alike.

In addition, the Concord facility offers an art room for students and better accommodations for staff, including a lounge and kitchen. More offices, work areas, rooms for meetings and storage are further benefits of the new location. Future plans include an Autistic Center of Excellence.

“Things are fresh and new. You feel more appreciated to have a nice classroom and office,” said Stewart. “Having access to exceptional technology and connections in a state-of-the-art facility makes a huge difference.”

The perk of owning the school site also provides the school with a new sense of financial security vs. the ever-looming concern of rent hikes.

Tackling big-city problems

Concord’s busier setting represents a far different experience and more challenges for the students compared to the sleepy town of Moraga.

The new surroundings are both a blessing and curse as the students are encountering trash and homelessness. But Stewart is hardly bothered by the realities, warts and all, that her students now face on a daily basis.

“It was not part of the reasons we chose Concord, but it has been a silver lining,” she noted, adding that “being able to function in that busier environment” will prepare students for experiences that come with colleges in large cities.

Stewart appreciates the support that the city and Police Department have extended to Orion in adjusting to their new surroundings.

“While I miss the open air of the old Moraga campus, Concord has helped me adapt to more independent traveling,” said Adrian, an Orion senior. “The shorter distances between the classrooms make it easier to navigate the school, and the city of Concord itself has a lot to offer.”

Looking to expand services

The Moraga location reached a peak of 60 students, but the COVID-fueled changes that literally re-wrote the game plan for all educators overnight proved a hardship. Enrollment dipped to 54 students, eventually bottoming out at 45.

Since emerging from this period of uncertainty, Steward said there has been an uptick in enrollment. Her optimism is underscored by a full ninth grade of 12 students in place for the 2023-’24 school year.

Orion acquired two buildings in the purchase. Classrooms occupy the rear building on the property, and administrative offices are in the other just off Clayton Road. It is Stewart’s hope that the upstairs of the administrative building can eventually be leased out as a center that offers a safe and secure space for providers of essential services like tutoring and speech therapy for students when the school day ends, as well as professional services like attorneys who specialize in wills for individuals with special needs.

As Orion Academy’s involvement in the community grows, the next goal is forging more and new relationships with businesses and organizations in the Concord area.

When located in Moraga, for example, officials made a connection with the athletic department at St. Mary’s College for an Orion student interested in athletics. Stewart hopes to develop similar pathways for potential internships to further expand the learning experiences beyond the classrooms.

David Scholz
David Scholz

David Scholz is back in journalism as a freelance writer and photographer after nearly two decades in education. Prior to moving into teaching in 2000, he worked as a full-time journalist since 1988 for rural community and small daily newspapers in Central Ohio and Northern Nevada, and later in California with The Business Journal in Fresno and dailies in the Bay Area, including The Oakland Tribune and The San Francisco Chronicle. More recently Scholz also worked in an editing, writing, and page layout role with the Rossmoor News.