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Friday Feature: TwiddleU

Colleen Hroncich

Jeana Wilson didn’t plan to get into education. But her daughter has special needs that her local school district wasn’t able to meet. She spoke with the state department of education and her daughter’s teachers, did a lot of research on individualized education plans, and joined online parent forums trying to find a solution. “That’s when a lot of moms said, ‘hey, you kind of have to piece this together yourself.’ And I saw so many moms struggling, especially ones living in underserved and lower‐​income areas where those services weren’t available,” she recalls. “And I said, ‘you know what, I’ve never taught before, but I better figure it out—for the sake of not just my daughter, but other children who need access to those services, too.’”

twiddle school

Three years ago, she started TwiddleU, a nonprofit organization that provides education for autistic and neurodiverse children in the greater Atlanta area. “It started off because we were trying to address learning loss during the pandemic for neurodiverse children, specifically nonverbal autistic children and children with ADHD,” Jeana says.

They initially met at a local park and community center because they were low on funds and looking for a cost‐​effective approach. They brought in a speech therapist and an occupational therapist, and it became very popular. They even received a VELA Education grant to help them get started.

“The following year we ran it out of the third floor of my house, but there are so many rules and regulations to operating anything involving children out of a home,” says Jeana. “We reached out to VELA again for the second time, and they actually gave us the funds to get into a commercial space. And it’s been phenomenal.” She expects to officially open the doors to her microschool this fall.

She also joined KaiPod for an extra boost. “Having that support is absolutely fantastic,” she says. “There are so many other blossoming microschools who are in similar positions and want to help neurodiverse children as well. And we’re just kind of holding each other’s hands, trying to get through this.”

Jeana’s background is in computer science and cybersecurity, and around ten years ago she started an IT staffing and consulting firm. “Having that entrepreneurial spirit has helped me through this venture,” she says. “I don’t get too disheartened because I’ve been through the ups and downs and the roller coasters of working through and trying to manage a business.” As a bonus, having run a staffing firm, she has access to the platforms and resources she needs to find teachers and other staff.

Because she focuses on neurodiverse students, Jeana plans to have a wide range of offerings. For her summer programming last year, she brought in a curriculum specialist who created a customized plan for every student. “It’s so interesting when you see the range of where these children are. We had three children around the same age but on different levels in different things,” says Jeana. “She sat down with each child and met with each parent. And she found out what their goals were—where they were and where they’d like to be. Then she worked with them that entire summer, and it was so nice because I think that’s what they need.”

Given the special needs of her students, TwiddleU will also emphasize life skills. “The curriculum is very important, but we also want them to grow and become independent adults,” Jeana explains. “That’s where the occupational therapy comes in. And our teachers are phenomenal with helping with that as well. So you know simple things like being able to warm up, maybe, a bowl of mac and cheese in the microwave and operate that properly. Or to bend down and tie a shoe. You know, simple things that sometimes neurotypical people don’t think about. But those are the things that they need to succeed in life.”

twiddle school

The schedule at TwiddleU is also designed to meet the needs of the neurodiverse students Jeana wants to serve. The original schedule was a rather typical 9 a.m.– 3 p.m. “But we noticed the kids got so exhausted,” Jeana says. So they switched to a 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. schedule. “We noticed the shorter days worked so much better for these kids. But at the same time, I had to keep in mind we have working parents. So what we’re in the process of doing now—in addition to reopening as a fully functioning microschool—is adding before‐ and after‐​school programs for those parents.” Families also have the flexibility of choosing to attend three, four, or five days a week.

Being accessible to disadvantaged families is very important for Jeana. “It has always been my passion to help families who are low income or living in underserved areas where they don’t have access to as many therapies and assistance for their children,” she explains. So she is planning to participate in Georgia’s Special Needs Scholarship Program and the new Georgia Promise Scholarship education savings account (ESA).

Considering she never expected to get into education, Jeana’s efforts with TwiddleU are all the more amazing. She’s taking individualized education to a whole new level, and neurodiverse children in the Atlanta area are going to be the beneficiaries of her vision.

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