After more than 50 years and national accolades as a model of progressive education for children with special needs, the Frankie Lemmon School has broadened its mission to include typically learning children. The inclusive-classroom setting provides advanced learning opportunities for all of its students.
In 1965, Frankie Lemmon was finally old enough to go to kindergarten. Only, he wasn’t allowed. Of all the public schools in Raleigh, not one would accept him.
Frankie Lemmon had Down syndrome, and at that time public schools typically could not accommodate children with special needs. Convinced that Frankie and other children with special needs should be allowed to go to school just like other boys and girls, Frankie’s parents—Frank Lemmon, who was the pastor of Hudson Memorial Presbyterian Church, and Frankie’s mother, Georgia—partnered with their congregation and the surrounding community to start a new kind of school, eventually named for their son.
When it began, the Frankie Lemmon School was housed within the Hudson Memorial Presbyterian Church building, and it had only three children on its roster. Before long, however, the school outgrew its space there. Frankie Lemmon School then operated out of the Hayes Barton Baptist Church basement, where it stayed for 45 years, growing to a maximum capacity of 25 students, with classes for children from age 3 through kindergarten.
In 2016, Frankie Lemmon School and Developmental Center, as it is now known, moved into a larger, freestanding facility near WakeMed Raleigh. The move was made possible by the generous support of Michael Olander Jr., a local entrepreneur who purchased the building and enabled the Frankie Lemmon Foundation to rent it until the school was able to buy the building—a landmark event that just came to pass in June.
A Permanent Home
In its first year in the new building, the school’s population grew to 68 children. This year, the enrollment increased to 70 children, and in the coming year the plan calls for 91 students. Ultimately, the building will accommodate up to 125 students and—with its small teacher-to-student ratio (1:6 or lower)—each child receives an individualized preschool education, based on his or her specific needs.
Recently, the school expanded its services to create inclusive classrooms so that children without disabilities may attend along with the children who have special needs. Transitioning to an inclusive-classroom setting, where typically developing children learn alongside children with special needs, benefits all of the students. For children with disabilities, they are motivated and encouraged to learn through interaction with and imitation of their classmates without disabilities. For students without disabilities, they receive invaluable life lessons about compassion and understanding, and what it means to respect others and support people who are living with different circumstances.
In coming years, Frankie Lemmon School and Developmental Center has an eye toward even more growth. The school hopes to fill 91 seats in the fall, and they will no doubt be claimed. The numbers tell us why:
In each of the last two school years, Frankie Lemmon School provided 1,333 hours of speech therapy; 1,166 hours of occupational therapy; 282 hours of music therapy; 282 hours of vision therapy; and 205 hours of physical therapy. That’s 3,268 hours of therapy completed in a single school year.
Additionally, Frankie Lemmon’s full-time staff includes nine teachers holding bachelor’s degrees and eight possessing master’s degrees. Students are also served a healthy breakfast, lunch, and snack that’s prepared on-site every school day—a whopping 27,540 meals were served in each of the last two school years. And if you’re wondering about numbers as far as cost is concerned: Thanks to the generous donations from the fundraising events of the Triangle Wine Experience, no child is turned away because of money. (Visit TriangleWineExperience.org to learn more or attend an event, January 31st to February 2nd, 2019.)
Meet the Children
The numbers can only tell us so much. Parents of past and current students attest: There’s so much more to love about Frankie Lemmon than just the impressive number of hours of therapy offered or how well-qualified their teachers are.
David Askew’s son, Dylan, has Down syndrome, and spent three and a half years at Frankie Lemmon. “That school has been a gift from God,” David says, “They love our children as if they were their own.” Dylan is now in public school, but he formed such a tight bond with one of his teachers while attending Frankie Lemmon that the former teacher still calls to plan outings with Dylan.
Allie and Landy Townsend were told by doctors that their son, Ben, would never talk or walk. Ben was born with a genetic condition so rare that it has no name. But when Landy and Allie heard about Frankie Lemmon, they knew they had to try it. When he arrived at Frankie Lemmon at the age of 3, Ben could only scoot on the floor and he was non-verbal. But through what Landy describes as “simple tenderness,” the staff at Frankie Lemmon coached and supported Ben’s development. They used play—making every interaction into a game—until, by the end of his first year, Ben was walking unassisted. By the end of his second year, Ben was talking. Now 11, Ben isn’t just talking and walking. He’s running, reading, spelling, doing math. “[The school] changed his life. It changed our lives,” Landy says. Ben says he wants to go to college, and his parents believe he will get there.
Jessica Moore’s daughter, Jaxon, who also has Down syndrome, is enrolled in the 4-year-old class at Frankie Lemmon. Jessica, a single parent, appreciates the love she knows Jaxon is receiving at school, and she feels supported as a single mother. Of the inclusive-classroom approach, Jessica says that it “challenges Jaxon to develop faster, utilize new things she’s learning, and prepares her for transition [into public school].”
But the parents aren’t the only ones raving about Frankie Lemmon. Speed Rodriguez, who is also in the 4-year-old class, uses sign language fluently and, every morning, the first words he signs to his mom are “School. Play. Friends.” School is his favorite place to be. When Speed walks down the hallway at Frankie Lemmon to his classroom, every teacher he passes gives him a high five—affirming with every step that he is valuable; he is special; he is loved.
Rebecca Smith, the school’s director, says she doesn’t have to do much recruiting. Most of the Frankie Lemmon teachers have come to her for a job, because they truly love working with children with special needs. In fact, Rebecca worked at Frankie Lemmon for 15 years before becoming the director. What started as volunteer work blossomed into a love for the school and the children. That’s exactly the legacy Frank and Georgia Lemmon would be proud to have left behind—that their son’s namesake is still fueled primarily by love.