Leigh Bozard — People to Watch 2019

Title: Principal, Emerge School for Autism
Age: 38
Hometown: Atlanta

As a school principal, Leigh Bozard knows how to keep calm and carry on. So when one of her educators called last fall and said, “You need to come right away,” she was ready for any kind of pint-sized mayhem.

When she entered the classroom, she says she’ll never forget what she saw: a kindergartner speaking for the first time. A boy who had previously been nonverbal was reading out loud.

For Bozard and her team at the Emerge School for Autism, these moments are extra special. Their kindergartners are learning all the usual things Common Core says 5-year-olds should know, like calendar months and how to write and use numerals. But as children diagnosed with autism, they are doing it with their own added challenges.

For some, sitting “criss-cross applesauce” is difficult. For others, eating cafeteria-style lunches seems impossible. And for a few, sensory distractions—the feeling of a clothing tag inside their shirts, for instance—are too much to handle. Many have been removed from multiple preschools.

Launched last fall by the Emerge Center nonprofit, the Emerge School for Autism is the only charter school of its kind statewide. It launched with 20 kindergartners, chosen by lottery. It will add a new, tuition-free kindergarten class annually, ultimately serving K-5.

It hits home for Bozard, who recalls her dyslexic brother’s own academic struggles growing up. She understands how important personalized learning is.

At the Emerge School, class sizes are small so teachers can work closely with students. Trained behavioral analysts collect data on student progress, and educators meet frequently with parents.

Classrooms are tailored to reduce student stress. Neon yellow tennis balls on the legs of the chairs seem like a cute, kid-friendly design touch. But they’re meant to minimize noise that might upset children.

So far, she says the approach seems to be working—that once-nonverbal child now reads every sign on the highway while riding with his mom. The words were always in his mind, his mom thinks. He just didn’t know how to express them.

“It’s life changing for our families, is what they tell us,” Bozard says of the program. “It can be so isolating to have a child with special needs. But what I love about it here is that … it’s OK to put your fingers in your ears and scream at the top of your lungs. We understand. It’s OK for your child to just be who they are.” emergeschool.org


Hidden talent: I love to cook!

Advice you’d give your 18-year-old self: Enjoy it.

Something you hope to accomplish in 2019: Make a difference in more children’s lives.

Click here to read about the rest of our People to Watch in 2019.

This article was originally published in the January 2019 issue of 225 Magazine.