By Matthew Wood
Jim Liener knew there was a better way.
Working as a special needs teacher in San Diego, mostly dealing with autistic children, he saw how the public schools system would routinely fail the kids that needed the most attention.
Then he started working with an autistic child who was being home schooled, not able to make it in a normal school environment. He turned the family’s gazebo into a one-room home schoolhouse. An epiphany hit: Why can’t we take this home-school format, which works best for kids with these needs, and make it into an actual school?
“It was kind of like I told myself, ‘Shut up and do something about it,’” Liener said.
That was the seed of what is now Pioneer Day School & Learning Center, which focuses on getting special needs children the skills to function in society.
“I started with one student enrolled,” he said. “They were so excited to actually come to a school again. That’s the basis. It’s kind of like a home school. The world is your classroom. We’re a home school in an actual school.”
It has been more than a decade since Liener started his brainchild – more than seven years in OB. It has gone from that one student to 28, with room for expansion. In fact, the school will soon add two new campuses: A building near Robb Field and a church across from Sunset Cliffs.
“What he’s hitting on is really just the beginning,” said Chad Tye, who has worked as a teacher’s aide at Pioneer for the past three years. “I don’t see any reason why this school won’t be a great success.”
That’s not to say it hasn’t been a bumpy ride. What Liener has been through would make the roller coaster at Belmont Park feel like a ride in a Lexus.
“Those first few years were struggle after struggle financially.”
The tribulations began even before the school opened in its original spot near University of San Diego in 2003. Liener’s partner in the venture backed out just days before the school’s opening. Still, he powered through, staying at the location for a few years until the lease ran out. He moved the school to the upstairs of a church in Pacific Beach. That brought on its own set of obstacles.
“It was kind of a disaster,” Liener recalls. “The pastor of the church looked and sounded just like Dr. Phil.”
All of a sudden, a bunch of posters that said ‘God loves you’ kept popping up in the hallway. This was a time when the school was trying to get certified as a non-public school that can still work within the framework of public schools – that is, a separation of church and state.
They reached an agreement to put the posters back up after the school was inspected for certification. But that didn’t fly too well with the church’s board of directors, and soon Liener was once again looking for a home for his school.
“The next morning, I got on my bike and hit every church from PB to OB,” he said.
That’s when he found the OB One church and his new home on Santa Monica.
“It was the completely opposite experience, coming to OB,” he said. “It has been just the most amazing place.”
That’s where he stayed, building the school to what it is now while hiring what is up to a 31-person staff.
That’s not to say it’s a perfect system. The school charges a fee, most of which is paid by the public schools system. But the public schools don’t want to pay – it becomes a last resort when they realize they don’t have the resources to help the kids.
“Most public schools don’t want to send a kid here,” Liener said.
You may have seen the school on Santa Monica Avenue – across from Ocean Beach Elementary School. It’s the one with the garden in the front and the “Snack Shack” next door. This isn’t just for show. It’s part of the school’s curriculum to get the kids some sort of real-world experiences.
The kids work on the garden. They help tend to the Snack Shack, which is open three days a week, selling food and drinks to the public. They are going to the grocery store, making budgets for shopping and learning how to live in the real world.
“Every afternoon kids are going out,” says Lindsay Curtius, the school’s Transition Director. “It’s important because they are learning about it in the classroom, then they go out and do it.”
That includes trips to the beach, bike rides, surfing excursions and even going out on the school’s boat.
“Every minute is different. The instruction is different from every place I’ve been. It’s so individualized,” Curtius said. “And we have an organic garden out front. How cool is that?”
That’s all part of Liener’s plan to get the most of each student that comes to his school, no matter what level they are at or what their needs may be.
He says there are two types of ways to deal with autism: Either a regimented, structured system or one that is flexible and lets the kids make more of their own decisions. He sides with the latter.
The end goal is to see the kids succeed in society.
“To do a great job with a low-functioning student, you need to have them with high-functioning kids so they can learn.”
But you also take the higher functioning kid and give him responsibility.
“It’s the oldest trick in the teacher playbook. You take a kid with a behavioral problem and make him a leader. “I don’t want to minimize what we do here, but it’s not rocket science.”
So the garden isn’t just a couple of boxes with vegetables in them. It’s something the kids can actually do and see the results of their work.
“It’s really great for a lot of kids who don’t get out,” said Tye, who runs the garden, as well as the Snack Shack. “It gives a sense of responsibility, of accomplishment. A sense of ‘This really is mine. I did this.’”
He said that Liener always finds a way to take things a step further. When the garden yielded a cabbage, he got all the students together and showed them how to make cole slaw. Then they ate it. Full circle, just like that.
“These are kids who just prefer to be in their own heads,” Liener explains. “To get through to them, you have to make yourself more interesting as a human being than what is in their head.”
Tye is a perfect example of Liener taking a chance on something he believed in, then reaping the results. The 34-year-old grew up in Oceanside, working odd jobs since age 12. He never really had many expectations, and nobody else really expected much of him, either.
He started volunteering at Pioneer School in 2010, but didn’t think he would stay long. But he loved the experience and encouragement he got from Liener and the staff.
“My lease was up and I said, ‘I’m gonna do it.’ So I moved to OB and I’ve been here ever since.”
Now Tye is taking classes at Mesa College en route to a degree in education.
“He’s really amazing at building a sound team. He’s really given my life a whole new direction. He’s given me opportunities not many people would give me. He has done a great thing for me.”