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Law Alum Co-Founds the Cloverleaf School in Atlanta

by Jennifer Murphy Romig '98

Joy Taylor '98 and familyJoy Taylor '98 enters the doors of the school, eyes shining and heels clicking, and quickly spots a bright eight-year-old face at the helm of a big-kid tricycle. That is Oscar, Joy’s son and the motivating force behind her new role as co-founder of the Cloverleaf School. Along with two other families and an experienced teacher, Joy and her husband, Greg Dobrasz, opened the Cloverleaf School in Atlanta in January. It admits students with neuro-divergent or neuro-behavioral issues, the most common diagnoses being ADHD or high-functioning autism spectrum disorder.

Joy and Greg had been working with Oscar since he was two years old, exploring a variety of therapies and school options. “I know Oscar and I know he’s capable, but he needs a lot of social and emotional support or he just shuts down,” Joy said. Each expert and each school they encountered offered something, but they wanted a place for Oscar that added academic ambitions alongside sensory-integration work and social skills development. Along the way in Joy and Greg’s quest, they met a handful of other families with similar goals and ultimately decided to “hold hands and jump into the abyss together” by founding a new school. 

The Cloverleaf School’s motto is “quo vadis,” Latin for “where are you going?” This motto reflects the school’s premise that children with learning differences do not have fixed destinies; rather, their outcomes can be influenced by their social and academic environments. Joy is passionate about this motto: “More than with typically developing kids, no one can guarantee how things will turn out. The only sure bet is that every day will look different and we will always try our best. We don't know where we are going, but we are on the road to somewhere. But you can't get very far without teachers who passionately believe that these kids have academic potential. The reality is often that challenging kids who struggle with classroom behavior can present difficulties and sometimes even meltdowns. As parents, we need teachers who believe that the progress is worth the behavior, worth the ‘hassle.’”

Beyond a palpable love for Oscar, Joy brought her legal and management skills to founding the Cloverleaf School, incorporating it and hiring the first faculty members. Joy also works full time as the administrator at Peachtree Neurosurgery. Her training and background left her unafraid of tasks, such as forming a 501(c)(3) organization for tax purposes and applying to be the recipient of state funds for disabled students entering private schools. Founding parent Julie Smith manages the school’s IT and human-resources needs. Another founding family, Mark Ledden and Susan Anderson, brought strength in the accreditation process through Susan’s work at Spelman College. The Cloverleaf School is fully accredited by the Georgia Accrediting Commission.

One of the Cloverleaf School’s ultimate goals is to have a 3:1 or 4:1 student-teacher ratio; for the founding semester, that ratio is lower. Each student will have the opportunity to participate in classwide goals as well as to progress on an individualized plan. Teachers have been thrilled with the opportunity to pick and choose among teaching resources to individualize the curriculum to each child. “We want to keep them engaged, whether they are inflecting inward, which is common with autism, or outward, which is common with ADHD,” Joy said. Teachers noted that the Cloverleaf School’s multidisciplinary approach gives teachers the flexibility to respond to each individual student’s areas of struggle and strength.

A typical school day at the Cloverleaf School includes the “morning meeting” with the kids, individual and explicit social skills instruction, a student inquiry-based class period called "Buddy Time.” An hour of language and an hour of math are integrated throughout the school day, as well as coverage of other elementary subject areas such as social studies and science. Teachers also add in enrichment classes such as hiking, yoga, cooking, soccer, and sewing, which help with motor skills and social skills.

The school’s current location is in two comfortable classrooms within Sensations Therafun, a facility for sensory and occupational therapy just outside the Atlanta city limits. While it has been a welcoming home for the school’s first year, the need for green space and room to grow will lead the Cloverleaf School to sublease new space in a Buckhead-area church for the 2012-2013 school year. Walking around the current location, Joy beams at the school and at Oscar, “I never thought I’d start a school, yet now I can’t imagine my son’s life without it.”