A historic building in the Northeast is now continuing its purpose centuries later.
The Lower Dublin Academy began as a one-room log cabin schoolhouse in 1723. The building developed from the will of Philadelphia’s own Thomas Holme who died in 1695. Holme was Pennsylvania’s first Surveyor General, working directly under William Penn. Before he died, he left specific instructions for his family.
“Holme gave four pounds towards the education of a child in the community,” said Fred Moore, president of the Friend of Lower Dublin Academy (Moore is also president of the Holmesburg Civic Association and is an active member of the Northeast Philadelphia History Network). “The will was not finalized until 1723 when his grandchildren decided they needed to take care of their grandfather’s wishes.”
LOWER DUBLIN’S HISTORY
In 1723, Holme’s grandchildren set aside two acres near what is now Academy and Willits roads to build a school for children in the community. The school outgrew itself by the turn of the century leading to the development of the Trustees of Lower Dublin Academy in 1794. Moore refers to the group as “one of the earliest corporations in Pennsylvania.” The trustees generated revenue to create a brand new school on Holmes’ plot of land. The building has gone through several ups and downs since then, from being under commercial ownership to residential ownership, to sitting vacant for a number of years.
Acting as a member of the Northeast Philadelphia History Network as well as a Trustee of Lower Dublin Academy, Moore helped establish the Friends of Lower Dublin Academy in 2008. He is now president. The organization stumbled across a banner waving in front of the building a couple months ago.
“We saw this banner for some sort of autism awareness center, a learning center,” Moore said. “Well, who on earth are they and how did they even get the right to put this sign up? We had no idea what was going on.”
A SCHOOL ONCE MORE
Now, 288 years later, the word is out that this building will become a school once again.
David and Barbara Butkiewicz, from Mayfair, have a special story. Their son Brian was diagnosed with autism at a very young age.
There are free services available in the United States that cater to children with Autism Specific Disorders. These disorders are not only limited to autism, but Asperger syndrome and PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified). These forms of care, however, are only available to individuals with special needs during what David referred to as the “early intervention stage,” when a child is between the ages of 3 and 6 years old.
The Butkiewiczes received care for their son from Elwyn, a human services organization that has been in operation for 155 years. Once Brian turned 6, however, his care was dramatically altered.
This crucial time in a special needs child’s life leaves the parents with two options: To apply for programs offered within the Philadelphia School District that are often extremely difficult to get in to, or to send their child to a private school specializing in Applied Behavior Analysis, a technique used to educate children with autism. Private education, however, does not come cheap. The Nexus School in Huntingdon Valley, Montgomery County, for instance, costs $61,500 per year for one special needs child’s education.
In the video: Tour the inside of Lower Dublin Academy
With one in every 110 children diagnosed with an Austism Specific Disorder, the Butkiewiczes knew they were not the only parents who could not afford this type of education for their child. In 2006, the couple established Autistic Endeavors Learning Center. The non-profit organization will offer free tuition to any child, anywhere. Support letters and donations have been flooding the Butkiewiczes’ home since the team began. From doctors from the University of Pennsylvania Health System, to 6th District City Councilwoman Joan Krajewski, to Pennsylvania State Sen. Christine Tartaglione, everyone is hopping on board. The Butkiewiczes already have 50 families waiting to enroll their children once the facility opens.
- current owners have invested nearly $1 mil in renovations
- grant, fundraisers and sponsorships will be paid back
- $1 million estimate for additional renovations, for which the Butkiewiczes will seek donations
- the school will cost about $375,000 to run annually
“We literally have milk crates of letters,” David Butkiewicz said. “One woman even contacted us from Puerto Rico to see if we would offer services to her child.”
Autistic Endeavors has also created a “Million Dollar Puzzle Challenge,” which goes along with their mission of, “putting the puzzle together one piece at a time.” An individual interested in making a donation can choose from a variety of colored puzzle pieces ranging in different donation values. Once the school is officially up and running, the pieces will be displayed on the walls of the hallways “for all to see.”
LOWER DUBLIN’S FUTURE
The couple always knew where Lower Dublin Academy sat, just before the intersection of Willits Road and Academy Road. Once it went up on the market for $300,000, they jumped on it. The Butkiewiczes will officially own Lower Dublin Academy on July 7 at the building’s settlement. They have several large fundraisers in the works and urge every person in the community to support their mission. While it may appear to be a long road ahead, this team is stopping at nothing to provide accessible care for special needs children everywhere.
“One day, my son is going to be 50. What is he going to do?” David Butkiewiczes said. “We are going to start small for now, offering education frrom kindergarten through eighth grade, but with time, we plan on extending our services to adults as well.”
The Butkiewiczes hope to break ground this fall and to have a fully operating facility by Spring 2012. And the Lower Dublin Academy will no longer be vacant.
“To be able to look at an old school house like this — one of the first in the city — and imagine the kids here going to school here in these stone walls, you can still see it,” Moore said. “You can point to it and not have to visualize in a book. This is really it.”
Gina Benigno is a student reporting for Philadelphia Neighborhoods, the publication of Temple University’s Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab.
Editor’s note: This story updates the information on tuition, which was incorrectly reported.