By Donna Cornelius
Parents who meet with Spring Valley School’s executive director may not know that the woman facing them once sat where they’re sitting – on the other side of the desk.
Dr. Laura Fiveash is the mother of one Spring Valley student and of another child who wasn’t accepted there.
The independent college-preparatory school for bright kids with learning differences isn’t the right place for every student who applies, Fiveash said, but that doesn’t make turning down applicants any easier.
“It’s hard in my role because I see the desperation of parents,” she said.
She and her husband, UAB’s Dr. John Fiveash, have triplets – Nicholas, Jacob and Hannah, now 15.
“They were born at 26 weeks, all weighing less than two pounds,” she said. “I knew what our lives would look like. It’s a process, an ongoing issue.”
Nick has multiple disabilities, Jacob has high-functioning autism, and Hannah has a learning disability, anxiety and a small hearing loss, Fiveash said.
“We were looking at Spring Valley for Jacob,” she said. “Hannah just came along for the interview.”
The school wasn’t right for Jacob – he and Nick attend Oak Mountain Middle School – but Hannah ended up a Spring Valley student. Their mother has been the school’s executive director for a year.
“I love it,” Fiveash said. “Every day is a new challenge. Every day I feel like I can make a difference.”
Spring Valley students may have learning differences due to autism, dyslexia and other disorders, she said. The school includes second through 12th grades.
Fiveash said the first step in applying to Spring Valley is for parents to come in for a meeting, bringing paperwork such as tests by school systems, medical diagnoses and an Individualized Education Plan – a document developed for each public school child who’s eligible for special education services.
“These are children who are not successful in a public or private school setting,” she said. “They have to have an academic issue, a learning issue. Is there a learning difference, a tension issue, a math or writing or reading issue? Students have to have a typical IQ and no maladapted or destructive behavior.”
Spring Valley School was started 15 years ago, Fiveash said.
“Joan Keagy, a certified language therapist, was the first director,” she said. “Dr. Lee Ascherman of UAB was a founding board member.”
The school is in a Hagood Street building owned by Crestline Christian Church. The church has been “extremely giving and supportive of the school” even though Spring Valley is not affiliated with it, Fiveash said.
Spring Valley has been successful in providing small classes, including a variety of electives such as drama, Spanish and graphic arts. This year’s senior class of five has four students heading to college this fall and the fifth joining a family business. Students have their own Chromebooks loaded with programs they might need, Fiveash said.
But she, parents and supporters of the school think Spring Valley can be even better and want it to grow.
“We have 65 students, 15 staff members – and three toilets,” Fiveash said. “The goal is to go to the next level. Kids shouldn’t think, ‘I have to go to that little school.’ I want them to be proud of where they go to school.”
John and Sara McDonald of Crestline have a son, fifth-grader Jay, at Spring Valley. The McDonalds are co-chairmen of the school’s building committee.
John McDonald, a member of Spring Valley’s board of directors, said expansion plans are in the works.
“We are working hard to raise funds,” he said. “We have a building fund, have applied for grants and have gotten some generous donations.
“If we can find an existing facility, that would be more cost-effective. We need a larger facility with more classrooms, a gym and athletic fields.”
Sara McDonald said she envisions more opportunities for Spring Valley students.
“I want to help develop a school where you can do classes like cooking or yoga – things that let these kids be what they want to be,” she said. “The dream would be to have boarding and more scholarships.
“This is a school we can get behind.”
Spring Valley may be small, but it’s a busy, lively place. On a recent spring afternoon, students gathered in the common area to rehearse a play. One hallway was filled with Jackson Pollock-style paintings, while mini-piñatas dangled from the ceiling of a classroom. Teacher Elizabeth Smith sometimes brings Draco, a bearded dragon, to school.
Fiveash said she takes a reduced salary because she believes so strongly in the school’s mission.
Schools like Spring Valley are crucial to the success of students with learning differences, she said.
“Alabama has the sixth-lowest graduation rate among students with disabilities,” she said.
Those who want more information or who would like to help with Spring Valley’s building efforts can visit www.springvalleyschool.org or call the school at 423-8662.
“We are building for a brighter future to meet the needs of each child,” Fiveash said.
Sara McDonald also has dreams for the future.
“I want Jay to one day be driving past the school and say, ‘My parents helped build this because they believed in me,’” McDonald said.