Black Mountain Academy set to open

Barbara Hootman

The former Wilson Family Funeral Service building on West State Street will soon become a school for boys with high-functioning autism.

Brandon Moffitt, executive director and co-founder of the Black Mountain Academy plans to open the school for boys with Level 1 autism who are 13- to 17-years-old this fall.

“The opportunity to partner with the ASPIRO Group was offered, and I was excited to be part of it,” Moffitt said. “The ASPIRO Group is originally based in Utah and already has three specific programs for kids with mild autism in operation.”

The Center for Disease Control reports one in 68 births in the U.S. is a child with autism. The Autism Society, a national organization based in Bethesda, Maryland that advocates on behalf of 3.5 million Americans who live with an autism spectrum disorder, reports that in the U.S., autism in children increased by 119 percent from 2000 to 2010. That makes autism the fastest-growing developmental disability in society.

When renovations at the Black Mountain Academy are complete, the private boarding school will house 12 to 14 boys with mild autism.

Moffitt, his wife and two children have been members of the Black Mountain community for the past seven years. Between 2008-2015, Moffitt worked with the SUWS Wilderness and Adventure Treatment Program for teens located in Old Fort. In 2011, he developed the “Approach Program,” an autism-specific program that focuses on autistic children who are struggling to attend school because of social issues. The program lasts 60-70 days.

The residents and businesses of Black Mountain are no strangers to a school for autistic youth. In July 2009, CRC Health announced plans to lease the historic Monte Vista Hotel and convert it into a therapeutic boarding school for 60 youth with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome, supported by 50 staff members. There was stiff opposition from the start from neighborhood residents and business owners. CRC Health chose the hotel so that students would have the opportunity to interact with the pubic and practice their social skills.

CRC Health treats a wide range of mental health disorders at several facilities across the nation. When the Monte Vista Hotel owners were foreclosed upon, CRC Health dropped its plans for the property. Its opening the school there had been a controversial topic in the community for months.

Moffitt said the Black Mountain Academy will provide educational opportunities by partnering with local arts and music scenes and by working with local universities for exposure of its students to colleges and internships.

“Black Mountain Academy will offer students a well-rounded education,” Moffitt said. “These boys have had trouble learning in a traditional educational environments. Some will be college material, and others will need to be trained for a job.

“The academy will have 24-hour staff to supervise and provide guidance,” he said. “In opening the academy in Black Mountain, we are investing in the local economy (by) using many local resources. The majority of staff will be from Buncombe County. At this point we have not met any opposition to the academy.”

Bill Altork, a local resident and father of an adult son, Jordan, who was diagnosed with mild autism and an attention deficit disorder. Jordan attended public school.

“Jordan went to many schools in our attempt to find the right fit for him,” Altork said. “The public schools promised much and offered little in terms of truly helping him. The public schools spent lengthy and impressive time interviewing us and him and then placing him in a class called ‘varying exceptionality.’ The class turned out to be not much more than a dumping ground for kids with less serious conditions than seriously retarded or handicapped. (Jordan) received little of the attention he desperately needed.

“A school like the Black Mountain Academy would no doubt have been a better choice for Jordan, had it been available. There is a need for social integration skills as well as the one-on-one attention that a private school can give students.”

Jordan Altork is a certified nursing assistant and has been employed at the Health Care Center at Givens Highlands Farms for more than three years.

Moffitt said the academy’s students will be available to volunteer for community service projects. There are plans for off-campus trips, adventure activities, vocational training and participation in special community events as a means of enriching the in-classroom experience.

“The academy classrooms will expand beyond the walls of a traditional classroom setting,” Moffitt said. “We plan to become an accredited high school within the next two years. Our trained and licensed therapists will work with staff and students to co-create experiences that help build social skills, the ability to access friendship, and improve executive function, emotional regulation and life skills.”

Linda Tatsapaugh holds a master’s degree in youth care administration and has 25 years of experience in the field of educating students with autism and related disorders. She worked with CRC Health on the school at the Monte Vista Hotel, and she supports the Black Mountain Academy. Tatsapaugh operates the oldest summer camp for autism youth, in Zirconia, N.C.

“Some youth having autism will benefit from public school education while others will do better in a private boarding school like the Black Mountain Academy,” Tatsapaugh said. “It all depends on the individual student and the symptoms that student exhibits.

“Autism symptoms manifest in many different ways. The one-on-one attention for a small group of students with trained teachers should be a benefit in most cases. Black Mountain is a small town, an ideal setting for these students to practice their development of social skills. The community is overwhelmingly accepting of people with special needs. I think locating the Black Mountain Academy in Black Mountain is a positive thing for the students and the community.”

Moffitt graduated from Berea College with a bachelor’s degree in education. He received a master’s degree in community counseling in 2005 from Denver Seminary. He is licensed in North Carolina as a professional counselor.