Bottom line: I’m inviting you to channel some of your year-end, non-profit giving to Cottonwood Day School.
Our story: My husband and I have a large, blended family—Ania is our youngest, age 16, and was adopted as an infant internationally. We have, for the better part of a couple decades, tried to fit each of our kids into the right educational setting for their particular needs each year, utilizing public, private, and home schooling in varying combinations. School for Ania was tricky from the get-go. She had an expressive and receptive a speech delay, cognitive challenges, and she struggled to keep up with her same age peers Slowly, day in, day out, she was learning that she didn’t know what she was supposed to know and that she wasn’t keeping up with other kids.
As Ania grew older, she grew more and more was anxious and was afraid to go to school. She and cried every night at bedtime, sometimes for hours. We worked with the school for weeks, they pulled out all stops, even shifted to half days, but nothing made a difference. Eventually, we tried a homeschool program. A year and a half in the quiet of our home we made progress, but there were needs I couldn’t meet, and it was taking a toll on our relationship. I couldn’t be all of the experts rolled into one. Eventually it felt like I wasn’t even doing a decent job just being her mom. Our ship was sinking. We scoured our options in the community for any other school that might meet her specific needs, but came up empty.
Enter Cottonwood. One day I happened upon a post on social media about Cottonwood Day School, and Ania was seated at her desk a week later on the first day of school in August 2016. The school and the classroom were small and calmer. The instructors prioritized helping her feel safe, for months. The perpetual fear began to lift. She cried less often at bedtime. They intentionally had their eye on resurrecting her confidence, and she began to believe that she was good at school. They had the patience of saints and held her heart so gently, even when she behaved unexpectedly, as we’re all so prone to do. Rhythmic, day in, day out, gentle, safe, steady progress slowly rewired her little amped up nervous system.
Meanwhile, the staff walked alongside me as I tried to understand what was going on with her, the deeper stuff below the anxiety. First, Ania was challenged with sensory processing struggles. Then she was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. The speech and occupational therapists
focused on social learning and executive functioning, and the teachers utilized non-traditional methods to reach her mind with academics.
When Ania was 12, with the support of the CDS team, she was diagnosed with Autism. Since that date, Ania’s strengths and weaknesses, both socially and academically have made much more sense. We, the whole team, can target interventions and academic instructions more precisely, offer more helpful care, and honestly, love her better. Together with her we all work to co-imagine and co-craft her good, good future. Rhythmic, day in, day out, preparing her for the future she wants.
I’m no longer in the dark alone with her. Cottonwood supports families just as much as they support the students. I didn’t know how badly I needed the community they offered until we were out of the crisis. I’m back to being a pretty decent mom. I’m also free to do what I do in our small town, offering my contribution to keep our collective chin up in these hard times.
The bigger picture: There’s a ripple effect. As CDS does their work on behalf of at risk, learning disabled youth…it doesn’t just affect that one kid or that one family. It frees us, as community members, to pool our talents and resources to form a resilient net, not just in special education, in many areas of need. We need this collective effort to stand as a community because we all fall sometime, sooner or later.
Cottonwood Day School is the only school of its kind in the state of Montana. It has been over 7 years of dreaming, researching, planning, growing, advocating, jumping through hoops, creating policy and procedures, expanding, building, fundraising, and so much more.
They started with 2 students and now have 27, with the capacity to accommodate 64 students. They started with 3 employees and now have 14, with a future eye on employing 24. They started in a small, old, quirky building with 5,000 sq. ft. and are now in a brand new, 18,000 sq. ft. building designed particularly to the needs of the student population. When Ania walked into the gym for the first time, she paused, relaxed her body, and said, “It’s so calm.”
Last year Cottonwood attained accreditation through the National Commission for the Accreditation of Special Education Services through the National Association of Private Special Education Centers, an organization that understands the nuanced needs of our student population and who supports the integrity of all aspects of our program.
The dreamers, the administrators, of CDS have pioneered a path through a thick bureaucratic system to bring all of this to life. Remarkably, they aren’t finished yet. CDS started in 2014 with a grade school program, expanded later to include middle school, and are now on the cusp of launching a new high school program, once again, to meet the specific unique needs of their students with an eye on readying them to live successful adult lives.
Final ask: Please donate some of your year-end giving to this non-profit organization. Your money will enable us to continue our growth trajectory, impact more students and family, and meet an important, under-resourced need in our community.
If you have questions, check out our website or call the school:
10180 Cottonwood Road
Bozeman, MT 59718
My name is Melissa, and my time spent working in the public school system led me to a desire to just have children who were sitting nicely at the top of the bell curve of intelligence. I didn’t want them to need any extra support, and I could see the schools and teachers doing their very best to meet the needs of the kids at either end of the spectrum, but if the child was an outlier, it was harder on the child and the parent having to continually fight to ensure their child was getting what they deserved.
I did not want my children to be victims of that brokenness. My only concerns for Charlie going into kindergarten were like most parents: will kids be nice to him, will he make friends, will he enjoy learning? That all changed after that first parent teacher conference. We walked into our meeting with a confidence that Charlie was smart, inquisitive, and extremely advanced in his expressive language skills. My husband and I walked out of that 20-minute meeting shell shocked, eyes wide with confusion, shaking our heads with disbelief. The teacher’s concern was just as evident as my confusion.
I questioned myself and wondered if I was going overboard or overreacting, but despite that I kept moving forward, then the pandemic happened, and overwhelm set in as I tried to navigate at home learning.
Fast forward to August of 2020, a primary diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), combined type and a rule out for a learning disability. The challenge in diagnosing learning disabilities is it relies on discrepancy, the difference between a child’s ability and their classmates of similar age. It was clear from the conversation, however, the doctor did not think we should just sit and wait.
Cue Cottonwood Day school. I called and spoke to Amy on that first call, and we scheduled a meeting with her and Meredith to discuss what it would look like for Charlie to attend. They offer Orton Gillingham each day the kids are in school. Orton-Gillingham has become one of the main curriculums used to help children with reading disabilities. It is multisensory in its approach and it offers all children a structure framework to learn to read.
Cottonwood Day School rose up like a beacon of hope in a time when we otherwise would have felt terrified, hopeless, and exhausted. During the school year of 2020-2021, Charlie’s school year proceeded mostly uninterrupted by the pandemic in part because of the extremely small class sizes and the brand new large building they now had to space the kids safely out. The building is also built with sensory issues in mind and this was a surprising benefit for Charlie. It was clear that the excessive environmental stimuli in the public school had been flooding his system. When asked now what he likes about Cottonwood, one of his answers is it isn’t very loud. This was something I had no idea was an issue for him, until he could experience it differently.
Fast forward to 14 months later… Charlie is learning to read. He loves going to school. He loves his teachers and he can feel their love and care for him. He feels good about walking into that door each day. The only box Charlie needs to fit into at Cottonwood is his own and he is given permission to let that box be whatever he wants it to be or needs it to be. This is not about the public school’s failures, but about a place that miraculously exists in Bozeman, Montana, where kids are allowed to have their own perfectly imperfect box; a place that teaches them to flourish and grow up and out of any box our culture has imposed on them.