Local children and adults with special needs, autism, attention deficit disorder and other neurodiverse conditions now have a new educational facility at a former Suncoast YMCA center in Clearwater.
Mayor Brian Aungst, Sen. Nick DeCeglie and several community leaders celebrated LiFT’s (Learning Independence for Tomorrow) new school opening Tuesday morning at a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The state-of-the-art building at 1005 South Highland Ave. encompasses 60,000 square feet and sits on 7.2 acres.
Shawn Naugle, executive director of LiFT, called the $16 million project “a dream come true.” While based in Clearwater, he said the academy welcomes any student throughout Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties.
“In fact, we’ve had students move from out of state to attend LiFT,” Naugle added. “These are our neighbors. These students are our peers – they’re the future leaders of tomorrow.”
Kim Kuruzovich and Keli Mondello co-founded LiFT in January 2013. They drew inspiration from their daughters’ experiences living with neurodiversity, and sketched their vision for a unique educational program on a dinner napkin.
According to its website, the organization’s goal is to “level the playing field” for people who learn differently. LiFT officials also strive to eliminate bullying found in traditional schools.
The nonprofit organization provides kindergarten through 12th grade educational programming through the LiFT Academy. Its University Transition Program helps those aged 18 and older prepare for independence.
Another initiative offers career readiness programming for neurodiverse residents over 23 years old. “So, we currently serve adults into their 30s, 40s and 50s right now,” Naugle said.
He noted that 96% of LiFT students attend on scholarship, whether based on their “unique abilities” or income status. Another fund sponsored by St. Petersburg-based tech conglomerate Jabil helps bridge any tuition gaps.
Naugle explained that LiFT creates a community for students with neurodiversity. He said those children are often isolated from peers or lack individual attention from teachers at traditional schools.
“Here at LiFT, our class sizes are limited to 16 students or less,” Naugle added. “Every student here receives an individual support plan tailored to that child or that adult learner’s individual learning style.”
He said that includes specific needs and accommodations. Many neurodiverse people must overcome sensory challenges, and officials designed the facility with that in mind.
Naugle said LiFT helps unlock previously unrecognized potential. He noted that the organization has averaged a 95% graduation rate over the past decade, about 20% higher than exceptional student education (ESE) programs at public schools.
In addition to Jabil, LiFT’s website highlights dozens of private and corporate sponsors. Naugle said the community support “means the world” to students, teachers and organization officials.
“We’re all a part of something very special that is dedicated to changing lives for the better,” he said. “LiFT would not be where it is today without the generosity, volunteers, the time and effort from all our community partners that have literally opened doors for our students to have internships.”
Naugle explained that LiFT once operated out of a small space at a church with less than 20 students. Most lived in the City of Seminole.
The nonprofit now serves 145 children and 36 adults throughout the area. Once complete, the new facility will hold up to 400 students.
LiFT officials bought the property from the Suncoast YMCA in December 2021. They then embarked on a $16 million fundraising campaign, and have spent the past 18 months renovating the facility.
Expansive exercise areas became classrooms, therapeutic spaces and rooms for extracurricular activities. Naugle said LiFT is halfway to its fundraising goal and will soon build a commercial kitchen for culinary education and a “micro-business lab.”
“And that will all be coming here in the next few months,” he added. “Every single child deserves a chance to learn, thrive and succeed. And do so in an environment free from bullying and free from being told that they can’t, they won’t and they never will.”