‘A happy place’: Same As U in Noblesville serves people with mental disabilities

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Jennifer Sell is the founder and executive director of Same As U, a unique school in Noblesville where young adults with mental disabilities can continue their education after high school.

Sell came up with the idea for Same As U in 2020 a few years after her daughter Jess, who has Down syndrome, had nowhere to continue her education when she graduated from high school. Sell said people with disabilities can suffer depression without the structure and social connections made at school.

Originally established at White River Christian Church, Same As U recently moved to 19201 Promise Rd. in Noblesville.

“This (post-high school) cliff they come to, it’s sad, and when they exit the school system, that all goes away,” Sell said. “Sports, all the activities, all the social things that happened at school, a lot of youth groups, they’re all geared towards high school kids, so it just ends.”

In 2017, Sell began visiting potential schools for Jess to attend, but none were the right fit. So, she reached out to a friend, Sara MacGregor, who has a background in education and also has a child with Down syndrome, and discussed the possibility of launching their own school for post-high school-age kids with mental disabilities.

MacGregor said she was excited about the idea, and Same As U was launched a short time later.

“Our students love to learn, and being in a school is a happy place for them,” MacGregor said. “Probably all of them have been in school since they turned 3, and so they are happy to be in a classroom setting and they are happy learning.”

MacGregor, education director for Same As U, oversees curriculum and teaches three days a week. Classes include functional/consumer math, science, current events, life skills, social skills, prevocational studies and literature. Students attend four 30-minute classes Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

“We feel like it’s important for everyone to have the opportunity to be lifelong learners,” MacGregor said. “We feel it’s important to keep the skills strong, all those skills that they’ve worked many, many years on, like reading, writing, all of that kind of thing. If you don’t use it, you lose it, and then our students are also at risk for regression as they age, and so we like to keep their brains active and their bodies active.”

Diplomas aren’t awarded but students can continue their education for as long as they choose. The youngest student is 19 and the oldest is in their 30s.

The school has four classrooms with four teachers and two floating teachers who aren’t in a particular classroom. A music therapist is also on staff.

MacGregor said there are many learning methods used at the school, including adopted novels, which are books made for people with disabilities.

Sell said the most rewarding part of her work at Same As U is watching students thrive.

“I think we serve a very vulnerable population that sometimes feels like they get the leftovers, and it’s just to me, as a mom and someone who cares about this section of society, they deserve the same thing,” Sell said. “They have the same wants and needs as you and I do, and they’re often sadly looked over.”

Sell eventually wants to use 5.6 acres on the Same As U campus for additional outdoor space. The school uses the parking lot for daily walks for the students. Sell also wants to construct a new cafeteria because the current cafeteria is in a shared space with the gymnasium.

CiN 1114 COVER Same As U 2
Jennifer Sell, founder and executive director, with her daughter Jess at Same As U. (Photo by Elissa Maudlin)

HOW TO ENROLL

Tuition at Same As U is $50 per day and $85 for two days.

Sell said many students use supplemental security income, which provides monthly income to people with disabilities and older adults, according to the Social Security Administration.

Currently, Same As U isn’t equipped for students who have physical disabilities, Sell said. Students must be able to communicate their needs and aren’t permitted to bring a behavioral therapist to class. There is not a nurse on staff.

For more, visit sameasu.org.

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