Autistic student first to receive Sierra Academy of Scottsdale diploma

Jacob Johnson had a difficult time in elementary school. He was shy. He didn’t read, and often chose not to speak either. Despite the best efforts of his teachers, it quickly became apparent he could not learn in a mainstream setting.

Sierra Academy

Jacob Johnson, at left, is the first to receive a high school diploma from Sierra Academy of Scottsdale. (Submitted photo)

It would take years of hard work, creative learning strategies and a dedicated group of people to help Mr. Johnson grow into the young man he would become.

On May 22, a group of proud family members and teachers will watch 19-year-old Jacob Johnson, a young man with autism, receive his high school diploma from the Sierra Academy in Scottsdale.

When Scottsdale Detective Mike Johnson first brought his son to the Sierra Academy, he hoped it would be a different experience than what they had encountered before. He knew his son could learn, just not in a traditional classroom, a press release states.

“When we met Jacob five years ago, he was so shy that he would not communicate or ask for assistance,” recalled teacher Heather Dunphy in the release.

“Instead, he would use a note card that read ‘Help.’ He could speak, but he chose not to. Jacob had very low self-esteem, he wasn’t reading at that time, and he was considered moderately autistic.”

The Sierra Academy of Scottsdale is an alternative and special education institution for students ages 5 to 21.

Students with identified learning disabilities, who learn differently, or who have been unsuccessful in traditional classrooms come to the Sierra Academy for individualized attention and teaching methods designed specifically for them.

Mr. Johnson’s team went to work finding an “in,” a way to connect with him. They discovered he was gifted with technology and enjoyed music, so Sierra staff used these interests as tools to connect with him. Before long, Mr. Johnson was the school’s “tech guy,” in charge of all technical setup for school presentations, the release describes.

As Mr. Johnson’s team began to pinpoint his ins, his reading and writing improved, the release continues. They began learning more about how to work together.

As Mr. Johnson progressed into the school’s Transition Program, he began receiving career-readiness training, marketable skills that would help him find a job outside of school. He mastered the program’s printing press, and now teaches other students of to use it, the release states.

According to the release, Mr. Johnson is now considered a high-functioning young adult with autism. He has a job outside of school at a custom T-shirt business where he earns money and considers future employment possibilities.

Mr. Johnson is the first student to receive a high school diploma from the Sierra Academy since the school opened in October 2010, states the release.

“Jacob passed the AIMS (Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards) assessment and is writing multi-paragraph essays. He is fulfilling all the requirements to earn his diploma,” said Sierra Academy director Debra Watland in the release.

“We are so proud of Jacob and all of the hard work he has done,” his father added.

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