The Anova Center for Education high school located on the campus of the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts suffered nearly complete loss in the fire of Oct. 9. The school was attended by nearly 125 students living with autism spectrum disorders, many of them functioning at a high level.
People with autism often need routines and stability to maintain emotional balance. Having their school destroyed could have caused even more trauma than that inflicted on others who lost homes or businesses.
Anova quickly adapted to the catastrophe. The nonprofit agency partnered with other schools to find room for autistic students.
Mary Beth Ludwig, one of Anova’s co-founders, helped lead the organization in the face of post-fire chaos. Ludwig, raised in Santa Rosa, is a CPA who worked for giant accounting firm KPMG and then Santa Rosa-based accounting firm Zainer Rinehart Clarke, whose headquarters survived in the Fountaingrove district despite burned landscaping. Ludwig then worked as a vice president for LaserVue Eye Center before co-founding Anova in 2000.
The Anova high school classrooms, photographed by North Bay Business Journal a few days after the fire, were left in rubble, though most of the main LBC theaters and buildings survived the flames.
When did you move into the classrooms at LBC?
We moved to that campus two years ago. (Sonoma Country Day School used to occupy the space.) The building was sitting empty. It worked out perfectly. We were thrilled to work with the Luther Burbank Memorial Foundation, a great fit. Our kids would go to the theater.
How many students?
Around 125. We were planning to grow to around 140 this year. We had about 60 when we moved in.
You have a son who has disabilities?
Yes. At age two, he wasn’t walking. I knew something wasn’t right. But now, give him a set of pipe cleaners and you could put him on a 12-hour flight anywhere. He will make something for everyone all around. He is 99 percent heart (now age 23.)
Where will he go as he gets older?
That is an important question I am working to solve. I started this organization because I needed help. I couldn’t sustain working in a professional environment.
How long were you with KPMG (then Peat Marwick, merged with Klynveld Main Goerdeler in 1987; now KPMG has some 190,000 employees)?
About two years in San Diego.
You were interested in numbers your whole life?
Yes. I knew I needed to do business because I wasn’t good at biology.
The numbers part of science you could do fine, but not the squeamish part?
I’d rather calculate the rings on Saturn. I could take sciences that way. Numbers were more comfortable than words. When I look at numbers or a financial statement, they tell me a story. I get a visual of what’s going on through numbers. I don’t see them as completely factual. To me, it’s an estimate, a symbol.
Human error makes the numbers sometimes not quite accurate?
Yes. There’s a bit of forgiveness with numbers. A partner from Ernst & Young taught advanced accounting. I actually taught most of it. He was a mentor for me.
Then you moved back here?
When I realized that my son needed help, I moved up here to a barn on my parents’ place. I went to work for Zainer Rinehart Clarke. He was going to a preschool that catered to children with differences. I picked him up often. He wasn’t comprehending. He doesn’t understand that there are seven days in a week — even now. He doesn’t know there are 12 months in a year. His emotional intelligence is higher — very empathetic, very social. It’s like he’s living in a foreign country. He needs someone to navigate his day. I used to put an apple next to his bed to remind him it was a school day and the bus would come to pick him up.
Does he have your facility for numbers or not at all?
No. He could probably count into the 20s. But if you asked which is higher, 8 or 15, he would not know. But I can teach him how to use a calculator. He knows what an 8 is.
Can he use a phone?
Yes. Technology now is amazing. He has a plus phone because he is a big guy, 6’2”. If we’re teaching grocery-shopping skills and he needs to pick up something at the store, he can make a visual list of what he needs to buy. He can go with his phone or an iPad and flip through pictures.
Can he drive?
No. He will not be driving. I started Anova (with co-founder Andrew Bailey) so that there was a place for him to go. I developed program after program based on a need, usually a discomfort that comes in my life. He reached another milestone and there was nowhere for him to go. We tried to keep him in the schools. It was not possible. He was getting more separated from everyone else.
You had left Zainer?
I was the vice president at LaserVue Eye Center. They were a client at Zainer.
Your son is autistic?
He has autistic-like behavior, but he is brain damaged from birth. He had frontal-lobe damage. He has underdeveloped neurological aspects — arm flapping, rocking, intellectual disability. He got more aggressive as he got older and bigger. He had outbursts. One day I had to pick him up. It was midday. I stood on the street with my son. Where am I going? To work? Taking him home? Where is he going tomorrow? I had nowhere to go. I got a behavior consultant and a behavior aide.
How much later did you co-found Anova?
Just a few months. I decided to quit my job and start a nonprofit. He (Bailey) was the clinician. I was the accountant. I needed clinical help and he needed organizational skills. He knew the service delivery. When people get uncomfortable, they create something.
You understood how to put a company together?
Yes. We grew LaserVue. I was very comfortable, knowing I could do it. I had no fear. I knew I was doing the right thing. It came in the gap between thoughts. Oh, there it is. I met the right people at the right time.
Do you do fundraising for Anova?
No. We are a nonprofit, but given my skill set and the fact that I took a $250,000 line of credit on my house (three investors, totaling $750,000), I made sure that our business organization didn’t rely on fundraising. We were each liable for that $750,000, individually and separately. That’s how the guarantee worked.
Was Anova ever in jeopardy financially?
No. But I definitely had some sleepless nights.
Where does most of the revenue come from?
We are fee-for-service. A company can do what we’re doing and be a for-profit. I would pit our business structure up against some of the finest organizations in San Francisco. We are clean, efficient. We have board members who are CPAs.
You are different from most nonprofits in financial structure?
I am very aware of that. We are driven by a strategic plan and a budget. We have a serious reputation for doing exactly what we say we will do. We can be within a tenth of a percent of what we intend. Right now we are probably 99.6 percent at one campus and 101 percent at another campus. Accountants love working with us. Auditors and bankers love working with us. We have an organizational commitment to follow through.
You are in Santa Rosa and Concord?
We have a campus in Concord. We did have a campus in San Rafael. We just closed that one.
How many students total?
It’s about 80 in Concord, about 200 total with the two campuses. We moved in there last January.
Staff is about 50?
That’s really close. Each classroom has 12 to 14 students. It’s a 3-to-1 ratio (teacher and assistants to students). We train staff in our way of being. It’s a medical environment from the moment the student walks through the door. We structure the therapeutic environment. Our teachers and therapists speak the same language. We do social-behavior mapping. For instance, if a student wants to hide under her desk with a hoodie over her head, we ask ‘What do you want other people to think about you?’
You shift their glimpse of what’s going on?
Yes. Do you want others to have weird thoughts about you? If you’re under your desk, they’re probably having weird thoughts. What would be a way to satisfy what you’re doing right now in a safe way and people wouldn’t be having weird thoughts? It’s not unusual to have a hoodie on. What if you sat in your chair and pulled your hoodie over your head? We shift their thought process to look at what others think. A lot of our students cannot be on a regular campus. It’s too loud. They need to bounce or spin in order to do math, to ground themselves. They have integration issues — where does their body begin and end. It’s spatial awareness.
Contracts go to public schools? What is the main revenue source?
We invoice public schools. Our schools are based on average daily attendance. Each day we bill the district a negotiated rate under a master contract under certification of the Department of Education. We are highly regulated. There are about 40 school districts in Sonoma County. Each child has an individualized education program.
What do districts pay for each student?
Over $40,000. Every student deserves an appropriate education based on needs (federally mandated under Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).
The total budget of Anova is more than $8 million?
It’s $11.5 million. Starting the company, it was day and night. It’s who you are and what you become. You are always at work. It was fun because it came out of a need. We have people who worked for us from the beginning. We have grown our own (directors and managers) from the inside. Loyalty becomes a part of who they are.
Services stop at age 22?
Yes. At 22 it stops. It’s like going off a cliff. It’s very difficult trying to figure out where to go.
You are trying to invent something that will serve your son?
Right. There are some organizations — Becoming Independent, Allied Integration Services (an adult day care) program in Rohnert Park. In the next couple of years, that’s where we’re headed. We are developing an adult day program (next to administrative offices off Airport Blvd.). This will be their home base, but they will be fully integrated in the community. SMART train is here, they can walk to it. The gym (Airport Club) is here. They can work at different organizations. A movie theater is here. They can practice purchasing meals.
You have room for 50 or so?
Yes. There are two classrooms there. After the fire, we took four classrooms at Bennett Valley Unified, K through 8th grades there. We have three classrooms at Foss Creek Elementary (Healdsburg), 8th through 12th. Currently there’s a 9th grade and transition class for those not on graduation track here (where the adult day care center will be). If you’re not on graduation track, you are on certificate track, like my son. That’s 18 through 22. In a transition program, they have a job site. They practice using banking services. They take their paychecks to the bank. What’s appropriate behavior at the bank?
Functionality in the world?
Yes. They might have job sites at Eagle Distributing, the food bank, Luther Burbank Center or Molsberry Market. With my son, North Bay Regional Center would pick up providing services. ADA is now covered by insurance.
How are the students handling the aftermath of the fire?
Kids are resilient. I am completely impressed how they handled it.
Is the school completely gone?
We have one pod that we leased, closer to the front. It’s intact, our transition-program classroom. We had to get our students back in session the day Santa Rosa schools got back in session. Long-term planning is to rebuild. But for two or three years, where are we going to be? We are looking for a place to drop portables (classrooms). We are going to use the LBC site. We have to think what effect it will have on the kids. They’re going to get it cleaned out, so kids will be exposed to regrowth, being rebuilt stronger and better.
How big was the school building?
It was 28,000 to 30,000 square feet. They had to do a lot of testing to see the impact on the main building, the integrity of the blocks. There was extreme heat. LBC has committed in spirit to rebuilding. This disaster is ongoing. There isn’t a person who has not been touched.