Lift Academy raises the bar for students with neurodiversities

Lift Academy was started four and a half years ago as a non-profit K-12 school for students with neurodiversities.

Lift Academy was never meant to happen,” said Keli Mondello, chair of the school’s board.

The non-profit educational organization, which operates from Oakhurst United Methodist Church’s Park Boulevard campus, caters to K-12 students with neurodiversities – autism, ADHD and other disorders. Its follow-up Lift University is a functional academic program for high school graduates, an outlet that helps these students transition to adulthood.

But initially, Mondello and Kim Kuruzocvich, executive director, who co-founded the school, planned to focus only on older students. They sought to create a transition program for neurodiverse young adults who had completed high school but weren’t candidates for a regular college program. They’d teach them everything from balancing a checkbook and creating a budget to working their first jobs. The long-term plan was to open a residential component for these young adults.

This plan came from a personal experience, Mondello said.

“I think you find that a lot of non-profits start with personal passions,” she said. “For us, it was about where are our girls going to go when something happens to us?”

Each of the founding parents had children with neurodiversities. Mondello’s daughter, Morgan, suffered short-term memory and processing issues due to a brain injury. Kuruzovich’s daughter, Gina, has autism, which affects her learning.

Both girls were in the eleventh grade when the school was formed. They previously attended a local private school, where Kuruzovich also taught special education.

Mondello and Kuruzovich’s bonded over the lack of accommodations for neurodiverse students at both public and private schools. They realized the need for opportunities for their daughters beyond their high school experiences and began planning Lift Academy.

Then, suddenly, in the middle of the girls’ junior year, unhappy with the private school they were attending, the pair found themselves abruptly opening Lift Academy as a K-12 program.

“We weren’t even quite sure what it was going to look like,” Mondello said. “We didn’t know if it was going to be a homeschool program or what.”

The space at Oakhurst became available to them and they opened their doors four and a half years ago with 17 students and three staff members. The majority of their instructors were volunteers.

The following year, they doubled their student body and also founded Lift University, which is modeled after their original plan. Today, the school boasts 110 students.

The key to Lift’s success is its “philosophy that all students should be exposed to a wide variety of knowledge,” Kuruzovich said.

Learnings is also as individualized as possible, she added.

“It’s less about students’ diagnoses and more about what accommodations they need to succeed,” she said.

Mondello added, “Any student here has any accommodation they need. We’ll give them a pencil with a rubber band around it if that helps them write better.”

Some students might need to pace the back of a classroom before continuing their work. Others might need to have materials read aloud to them.

“Whatever they need,” she said.

Because of these accommodations, Morgan was able to graduate with a regular high school diploma.

“I’m not sure she would have been able to accomplish that in another academic setting,” Mondello said.

Parents discover Lift for their children through word-of-mouth, primarily, said Jodie Miller, director of development, either from doctors or other parents.

“Once you find a school that fits, you’re going to share that information,” she said.

The school has been recommended by a variety of community organizations. Most notably, Kuruzovich was honored as a Lighning Community Hero by the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team in 2013. She received a $50,000 donation from the organization for Lift.

In the meantime, the school’s staff and board hasn’t forgotten about its goal to open a residential component to Lift University.

Mondello said the school has raised enough money to launch the residency, but still needs additional funding for the project. The board is also actively looking for property.

“So if anyone has property or an apartment building, let us know,” she said.