Emily Niehaus, left, and Emilia Cubelos stand in the doorway of the Heron School. [Alison Harford/Moab Sun News]

The Heron School, founded Emily Niehaus, former Moab City mayor, founder of Community Rebuilds, and owner of the Sunflower Hill Inn, opened for students this fall. The school serves “twice exceptional,” or 2e, students: students who excel academically but struggle in a conventional classroom due to a learning difference.

Parents of 2e students can be caught in the middle, facing a choice between a school that caters to the child’s academic aptitude, or a school that caters to the child’s learning challenges like autism, ADHD, anxiety, or dyslexia. 2e students are “among the most under-identified and underserved population in schools,” according to the Davidson Institute, because their twice-exceptionality often contradicts itself when looking through the lens of only the academic aptitude or only the learning challenge.

“Sometimes the giftedness cancels out the learning difference; sometimes the learning difference cancels out the giftedness. Sometimes they work well together, and sometimes they really clash,” Niehaus said. “These are students that are smart, but they’re struggling.” 

Most schools that have programs for 2e students—programs that can offer specialized learning environments—are private boarding schools located in large cities. Very few are dedicated specifically and only to 2e students. More and more public schools are training their teachers how to teach 2e students, but the public school environment—the large class sizes, the structure of an eight-hour day, even the between class bells—can be overstimulating for students with learning differences, Niehaus said.

“Certainly the momentum was my son growing up and us looking for an alternative educational environment for him,” she said. “The beautiful thing about launching this school is that we are going to address the needs of neurodivergent kids in our community.” 

 The school building is located next to the Sunflower Hill Inn. [Alison Harford/Moab Sun News]

Emilia Cubelos is a Moab local and the first Heron School instructor—her background is in international studies and speech and debate, so her unconventional road to teaching helped her develop the skills needed to work at the Heron School, she said. A week for Heron School students looks much different than for public school students but is designed to keep the students engaged and learning. 

“The curriculum is really open and flexible, and we can really adapt as the quarter progresses and cater to the kids’ different interests and abilities,” Cubelos said. In the first quarter, taking place now, the students have two classes per week with Cubelos: world geography and public speaking. Class time is split evenly into small lectures, which take place in a distraction-free room with wobble chairs and standing desks; discussions, where students are encouraged to ask questions and share their opinions; and individual projects, where students can deep dive into the niches they’re interested in. 

The distraction-free classroom is outfitted with four desks that can swap between sitting and standing. [Alison Harford/Moab Sun News]

The students are also taking a film studies class, taught by a local professional, and are each taking one online science course that they individually picked—“choose your own adventure science,” Cubelos calls it. While the curriculum is individualized, the students are still on track with the Utah state core standards. 

There are a few different rooms within the school that facilitate different types of learning, Cubelos said. There’s the distraction-free lecture room, a seminar room with cozy chairs and a TV, an activity room with couches and a project table, and a small dining area, where the students make their own lunches each day and have class discussions. 

“[The students] are so smart and engaged, and they really inspire me,” Cubelos said. “It’s really fun to get to share my knowledge with them, to watch them become excited and interested about these things, and to watch them make connections and start seeing the world differently.” 

The activity room is brightly lit with comfortable couches. [Alison Harford/Moab Sun News]

Niehaus wants to maintain a four-student to one-faculty member ratio, meaning the school can only enroll one more student before another instructor must be hired—but Niehaus doesn’t want to rush the hiring process, she said, because the instructors are so crucial to the school.

“While curriculum and individualized, project-based learning are things you can pull off the internet, or you can adapt and take inspiration from other schools, the thing that is very difficult to replicate is having an instructor, a teacher, who is smart, incredibly creative, and very dynamic in presenting information to each student,” Niehaus said. “Emilia is that perfect combination of qualities. The Heron School has to have that type of leadership.” 

The students also have access to extracurriculars: Niehaus is working on developing evening enrichment courses for the students, she said, which would be similar to an after-school club with more learning blended in. The first course she’s developing, in collaboration with Moab local Christopher Cleveland, is about Japanese history and swordsmanship. Niehaus is also hoping to host “neurodivergent nights” at the school, inviting neurodiverse adults from the Moab community to join the students for an evening; and wants to develop a summer program where students could board at the school and attend courses taught by local experts, like geology, during the day. 

She and Cubelos both hope the Heron School can also cater to students of all socio-economic classes—the school’s partnership with the Sunflower Hill Inn means that a portion of the inn’s profits can go toward funding the school. 

“We want to make this space somewhere that’s going to be inclusive and welcoming and comfortable,” Cubelos said. 

“The questions for anyone interested in attending are, has your schooling, whether it’s been homeschooling or public schooling, been difficult for you, and why? Are you an above-grade-level learner in one or more subject areas? Do you have a hard time learning in overstimulating environments? Have you been homeschooled because at an early age you showed signs of being a neurodivergent learner? Do you seek deeper facilitation around social interaction? If so,” Niehaus said, “that’s a Heron School student.” 

Niehaus encouraged anyone interested to reach out—you can learn more at www.heronschool.com. Niehaus is also planning an open house in October.

At the project table, students are working on a heron puzzle. [Alison Harford/Moab Sun News]