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Lisa Hoyt, Doctorate in Education
Founding director of Renton Academy, a therapeutic public school for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities

Education

Bachelor’s degree in Education and Special Education, Boston University
Master’s degree in Special Education, UW
Doctoral degree in Education, UW

Career path

Teacher in Seattle Public Schools
Supervisor of special education student-teachers at the UW
Consultant and trainer for the Washington Re-EDucation Association
Founder and director of Renton Academy

Teaching students who need the most help

It’s not hard to spot those students who make learning difficult for everyone—themselves included. They can’t sit still, they interrupt the teacher, they pester their classmates. So what’s a teacher to do? The familiar response is to banish the offending kid to the principal’s office.

But Lisa knew that approach didn’t make sense. After all, the students with behavioral problems often need that instruction time the most. “I wondered if there was something we could do differently to be able to help a student to attend class, behave, and not get anxious,” she said.

Lisa was sure of one thing: You can’t study learning disabilities without considering behavioral and emotional disabilities as well.

Becoming a special education expert

That fascination with special education carried through Lisa’s graduate studies at the UW and then nine years teaching in Seattle Public Schools. During summers, she trained teachers and helped with curriculum development for a group called the Washington Re-Education Association. The Re-EDucation philosophy, which dates to the 1960s and guides Renton Academy’s curriculum today, rests on 12 principles, such as building trust between children and adults, nurturing and expressing feelings, creating rituals and order, and promoting joy.

Lisa later spent about six years working at the UW, where she supervised student teachers focused on behavioral and emotional disabilities. In that role, she visited special education classrooms in every local school district, which “helped me to say that I knew exactly what I would do if I got my own school,” she said.

The UW’s advantage

Lisa decided to return for a doctorate degree at the UW in 2004. “I was feeling confident in my understanding about effective interventions for students in behavior, but the current research was not rich in understanding effective academic interventions for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities,” she said.

To help to fill those gaps, she focused her dissertation on designing a reading intervention—that is, an attempt to resolve a student’s reading difficulties—for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities.

The best part of studying at the UW was “the incredible talent that it attracts,” Lisa said. Faculty and students alike challenged her thinking, helped to broaden her perspectives, and transformed her into a lifelong learner.

Lisa credits her family’s support for her success in the doctoral program. Her husband, Chris, kept the house running smoothly while she spent untold hours at a computer, and her two children, Emma and Sam, “willingly gave up time with their mother so she could pursue her dream,” she said.

Starting from scratch

In 2006, the Renton School District announced plans to open a new K-12 school especially for students with behavioral and emotional disabilities. Lisa landed the founding director role—and with that, launched the most challenging year of her life.

To start, her July 30 hire date left her scarcely a month to prepare for the first crop of students. “It was an empty elementary school, not a chair or table or book or pencil in there, no staff, no concept,” she recalled.

She managed to outfit the building with supplies and staff in time for an opening day with four classrooms and 27 students. The school’s population has grown steadily since then, now leveling out at around 50 students across six classrooms.

It’s a challenging environment, to be sure: The students represent those from each school in the district with the most intense emotional and behavioral disabilities. Still, “they flourish when they have the right support,” Lisa said. Some have gone on to obtain high school diplomas, and others have even returned to conventional schools.

A national model

Within three years, Renton Academy had become a national model among schools of its kind. When the Council for Exceptional Children held its 2009 conference in Seattle, the leading special education organization selected the school as a host site to display to its members.

Almost more exciting than the recognition, Lisa said, was the students’ visible investment in the event:  They took charge of decorating the building, acting as tour guides, and explaining the school’s programs to the visiting special educators. “This was probably the first time in their lives that they were really shining as students and really proud of themselves, and they really rose to the occasion,” she said.

Lisa recently achieved top honors of her own: the Practitioner of the Year Award from the Council for Children with Behavioral Disabilities, a division of the Council for Exceptional Children.

Greatest adventure

“Opening a school is an unbelievable experience,” Lisa said. “As an educator there are very few chances to grow, create and develop your dream vision of what a school should be for students with disabilities.”

Advice to prospective graduate students

“Often an undergraduate degree is about moving toward a profession. A graduate degree is about exploring a passion,” Lisa said.” There will be very few places in life that will allow you to explore, research, write, and dialogue about a topic that captivates you.”

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