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Flying High

Making dreams come true for children and young adults (and their families) who are on the Autism spectrum or have other disorders of relating and communicating is the goal of Lombard’s newest educational institution, Soaring Eagle Academy (SEA). The academy, which moved to 800 Parkview Blvd. from Burr Ridge at the start of 2016, is a nonprofit therapeutic day school approved by the Illinois Board of Education.

Founded in 2010 by a trio of speech language pathologists, Linda Cervenka, Michele Ricamato and Deanna Tyrpak, the school is the only institution in the Midwest that follows the principle of the DIR (Developmental Individual-Differences Relationship) based model.

“Children on the spectrum process and respond to information through their senses differently than we do. We interpret students’ over-responsiveness to stimuli in their environment or inability to comprehend as a clue into their individual learning profile and capacities. We do not view it as a negative behavior that needs to be extinguished. We strive to appropriately read and interpret our students’ intentions and actions, supporting them with strategies for coping so they can grow and develop – emotionally, socially and intellectually,” said Tyrpak, who serves as executive director of the Academy.

“Parents often tell us that ‘there is so much more to my child than behavior. He is bright. He is awesome,’ and we at SEA agree,” Tyrpak added. “You must look beyond how a child presents on the surface in a body system that is overwhelmed by stimuli and start thinking in terms of their capacities instead of their limitations.”

“Since children innately want to please and want to feel competent and not be defiant, if we have a child, for instance, who struggles to follow verbal directions, we look for where the breakdown is occurring. Is it in comprehension, motor planning issues or emotional? We look for the cause and work to emotionally support the child instead of interpreting it as noncompliance that requires a consequence,” she added.

“That is why we dreamed of starting a school that would harness each student’s unique interests and abilities to support learning and to build a healthy foundation for social, emotional, communication and intellectual development, helping them become calm, happy, confident individuals who are engaged with others,” Tyrpak said.

At Soaring Eagle Academy, which caters to students ages 3 to 21, classrooms are led by a special education teacher and supported by a speech language pathologist, occupational therapist, social worker/counselor and a DIR specialist.

Program Director Dr. Jessica Nicholson Sonntag and DIR Expert Clinicians Linda Cervenka, Michele Ricamato and Jennifer Hein work collaboratively to oversee the educational/social program for each student within the Academy’s philosophy integrating development language models and DIR principle. Each student is assigned a one-to-one teacher assistant who acts as a “player,” wooing the child into an interaction and learning experience.

“The assistants help the children, many of whom struggle to stay calm, regulated and engaged, by wooing them and being their voice, knowing their triggers and supporting them in the midst of challenges, so they are available for learning,” Tyrpak said. “We are blessed to have talented and passionate staff supporting our students – making SEA the magical place it is.”

In addition to following the DIR model, which a handful of schools in other parts of the country have also adopted, Soaring Eagle Academy also incorporates Developmental Language Models into their teaching.

“Since we were founded by speech language pathologists, we are the only school in the world that integrates Developmental Language Models with the principles of DIR Floortime. We believe that the development of language within social relationships is critical to us as human beings because it is through language that we understand others and the world around us and communicate our ideas and feelings,” she said.

“Our work is very complex and that is what makes us so unique. Our teachers devise a unique curriculum for each student, using each student’s individual interests and abilities to guide the direction of their learning. In addition, all learning must be experiential. They need to ‘live the learning’ in order to gain a deep and lasting understanding. Therefore, everything is hands-on and meaningful. Students are naturally drawn to the learning experiences because their interests, developmental levels and learning styles are considered – making the learning meaningful and fun for them,” Tyrpak said.

If a child loves super heroes, it would not be unusual to see both the teacher assistant and the student at SEA wearing capes, honoring the student’s idea, as a way to bridge their interest to the literacy or math activity, all to nurture their joy for learning.

“For our students, it is all about learning ‘how’ to learn and since that is different for each of them, the teacher in the classroom has to interact with each child uniquely; communicate with them differently; and devise individual curriculums for them,” she added. “We are passionate about this. We love the work we do.”

Soaring Eagle currently boasts a student body of 60 and a staff of over 110. By this fall, they expect to meet their maximum enrollment of 70.

Unique to SEA, students are divided into age “pod communities” where children of similar ages explore and learn within a safe and nurturing environment. There is an early childhood pod for 3- and 4-year-olds, a primary pod for ages 5 to 9, an intermediate pod for ages 10 to 14 and a high school/transitional pod for those age 15 to 21.

As a therapeutic day school open 220 days per year, SEA is often the recipient of students whom public school districts determine require more intense and individualized services due to their complex learning needs, so they seek SEA as an alternative placement with the home district funding tuition. The goal is to deliver intense intervention so that students may eventually return to their home community and three have done that. Some, however, may spend their educational career at SEA, due to the nature of their needs, Tyrpak noted.

“We serve 48 school districts in a 40-mile radius ranging from Palatine on the north to Summit on the south, and from Wayne on the west to Chicago on the east. Moving to a 25,000-square-foot building in a central location like Lombard was ideal. In addition, we needed a larger building that could be specifically designed to meet our needs. We have color-coded hallways that lead to our different pods where students of a similar age have their classroom, individual instruction rooms, sensory motor gym, quiet areas and therapist treatment rooms. Our school is designed to meet the complex needs of our students and our cutting-edge teaching methods,” Tyrpak said.

SEA offers a rich curriculum, aligned with Common Core Standards, that includes literacy, math, science, social studies, art, music, physical education and school clubs (designed to promote students interests and peer friendships), she stated. In addition, those in the high school/transition years learn life skills and are given vocational opportunities.

For instance, the high school pod includes a mock apartment where students practice the natural experiences of daily living including making a bed, doing laundry and cooking. In addition, they are given jobs within the school, seeking to harness their natural abilities and interests. The jobs also promote a sense of self and competence by allowing them to make a positive impact in the school community, Tyrpak said. In fact, some students work in the school’s “store” where they sell snacks and beverages, practicing social communication and math/money skills.

“The Westin has also offered our students the opportunity to fold towels and assemble silverware rolls in the hotel. I can’t wait to see what other partnerships might develop within the Lombard community for our students. We have some students who are gifted in computer programming, for instance, and others interested in making jewelry,” she said.

Family involvement is critical at SEA. Parents are encouraged to visit the school to watch their child’s progress through one-way windows or on video and some even go into the classroom where staff coaches them on how to use their methods at home.

Soaring Eagle is currently in the midst of a $1.6 million capital campaign to pay for the build-out of their new facility.

“We have a 12-year lease with options to renew, so we look forward to staying in Lombard for many years,” Tyrpak said.

For more information, call (630) 323-2900 or visit

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