Peoria teens surpass challenges to graduate

Owen Wilson is excited about studying at the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery. Blake Wise plans to attend Grand Canyon University. (Photos special to Peoria Times)

Two Peoria residents, Owen Wilson and Blake Wise, overcame the hardships plotted against them when they graduated from high school in May.

Wilson and Wise were diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, or Level 1 Autism Spectrum Disorder, as children. Both ended up finding their way to Gateway Academy — a Phoenix private school that specializes in education for students with Asperger.

Recently, the diagnosis was renamed “Level 1 Autism Spectrum Disorder,” but this has caused a lot of backlash from Gateway students, including Wilson and Wise. That led the school to make some branding changes, according to Robin Sweet, founder and CEO of Gateway Academy.

“We use ‘Twice Exceptional’ in all of our information now because we had a mutiny with our students because they were very proud of having Asperger’s,” Sweet said.

“They are not happy owning a ‘Level 1 Autism Spectrum Disorder’ because it sounds like they’re sick.”

Wilson attended Gateway Academy since the third grade, and he said his experience there has been wonderful and has helped him branch out.

“I got experience meeting new people and making connections like I wouldn’t have had in public schools,” Wilson said. “Gateway has helped me build relationships with people — not just with friends — but with the teachers and even complete strangers where before I wouldn’t be able to talk to them. Now, I have the confidence to actually come out and speak to different people.”

For Wilson, many of his accomplishments come from the failures of his past and his willingness to grow from them. He cites another factor.

“My parents have helped me, and everybody helped me get through tough stuff,” Wilson said.

Sweet remembers exactly what Wilson was like when he enrolled.

“When Owen arrived at Gateway in third grade, he couldn’t read. He rarely spoke — he was extraordinarily shy,” she said.

“He had some really terrible bullying experiences in public school, and it wasn’t just the kids — it was the teachers — which is even more horrific.”

She continued, “It took a very long time — and I’m talking years — for Owen to have any self esteem, feel good about himself, know that he had a place in this world, that he was valued and appreciated and he could have friends and do things that typical kids and teenagers do.”

Today, music is a creative outlet for Wilson, and this has impacted his college decision. He has chosen to attend Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery, a Phoenix trade school focused on guitar-making and repairs.

To say Wilson is excited would be an understatement.

“I can’t wait to go there and make awesome guitars and learn the craft itself,” Wilson said. “It’s just like an artist with a blank canvas, and they start painting it. We take wood and make it into an actual instrument.”

Throughout his time at Gateway, Wilson has overcome a self-confidence barrier, and he said this will help him throughout the rest of his career.

“Gateway has helped me get that self-confidence, reaching out to new people and making connections, because if you have a job you’re going to be talking to complete strangers,” Wilson said.

Wise attended Gateway since he was in sixth grade.

The difference from public school to Gateway, he said, was notable.

“You start off in a public school, and it’s just awful — teachers don’t care about you, the students there are just awful, and then you come to (Gateway) and it’s so different,” Wise said. “You’re welcome with open arms, and you’ve got friends that will last you a lifetime.

“In public school I struggled to learn because the teachers would never help me, but here if you’re struggling to learn, you ask a teacher, and they’re there to help you.”

Wise attributes his graduation to his Gateway teachers and staff.

“I took control of my life (at Gateway),” Wise said. “I was able to get a job, I have a car; I got my driver’s license. All that was really helpful from the teachers here because I had no confidence. Here I was able to get myself on the right path through the help that they gave me.”

Aside from academics, college is a time for young people to find themselves outside of the classroom and become the adults of tomorrow. Wise said he is ready to do just that in his college experience and explore the many “new opportunities” coming his way.

“Now that I am going to college, I won’t be there every day of the week,” Wise said. “I’ll have opportunities coming up to do more things in my life now — like with my job. I have the opportunity to go do things with my friends more often.”

Sweet has also seen Wise since his start at Gateway, and she could not be prouder of his growth over the years.

“Blake started here in sixth grade, and he was very withdrawn — not a happy little guy — it took him a long time to trust the environment, to trust the faculty and to trust his fears, because, unfortunately, he had some brutal experiences not just in school, but in life in general.

Sweet continued, “He evolved to being definitely the class clown, if you can imagine that. If anybody is going to tweak anybody, it’s going to be Blake. That emerged as he felt heard, and he felt safe and he felt supported. When that happens, we all are the best that we can be.”

This fall, Wise will attend Glendale Community College, where he plans to study creative writing; however, his goals for the future aren’t necessarily to become the next best-selling author.

“My main goal for my future is to be successful — not like super successful — but to be happy,” Wise said. “I don’t care if I become a writer and my books explode or if they’re just there. The most important thing for me is to be happy.”

Wilson and Wise were members of the after-school band program, which was a setting for students to come together and play music with each other. The seniors who are part of the band program are also granted permission to perform two songs at their graduation and, according to Sweet, this year’s performance was especially moving.

“When the kids get up there, they’re loud, they’re proud, their vocals are just incredible, the instrumentation is just out of this world, and you go, ‘Oh my God. I’m not sure this is typical for anybody,’” Sweet said. “It’s very moving. There’s not a dry eye in the house. You have kids who don’t speak up for themselves, and for them to be out there on a big stage belting out these songs, there’s no words.”