Misher Innovates Learning for Students of All Ages

By Caitlin T. Burns | September 29, 2020

“I think that there’s just new ways that we won’t let go of,” said Karen Misher ’88, associate professor of Art and Design, as well as founder and Board chair of A Step Up Academy. “We’re not going back to the old classroom anytime soon, and I think that when we do, it’ll be a new version of that old classroom.”

Misher spent the summer preparing not only for her Arcadia students to return to class, but also the students at A Step Up Academy, a private, nonprofit school from kindergarten to 8th grade that works exclusively with children with autism. For her Arcadia students, she recorded demos, crafted tool kits, and learned to use Discord and Panapto.

“We’ve probably spent three weeks gathering everything we can think of and then fitting it into a flat rate box,” said Misher about her Arcadia classes. “That’s both materials and tools, everything from typical hand tools like hammers and saw blades, and also pieces of metal.”

Misher thinks that by using online tools like cameras and demos, students will end up with a better understanding because they’ll be able to see and rewatch the videos. In a regular classroom, she notes that students often crowd around to see a technique but they might not always be able to see clearly. Now, they all have a front row view.

For A Step Up Academy, Misher sewed masks for each of the 36 students and their families and worked with administration and faculty to move the school into a hybrid learning model. In total, Misher has sewn over 200 masks for students, their families, and her own friends and family.

Misher started A Step Up Academy in 2013 when she was looking to send her two sons to kindergarten. Both are autistic, and Misher said she struggled to find a school that would meet their needs. There were two particular things she wanted for her children: an opportunity to be included in activities with their peers, and a chance for her sons to go back to their home school district. The answers were always no.


Misher records a demo to show students how to use the tools in their kits.

“I wanted small group inclusion and I wanted a lot of service support that I knew they needed in order to learn, and those things combined was the uniform,” said Misher. “It just didn’t exist. That’s what our goals were, to hold on to the level of service but find community partners that were willing to do small group inclusion.”

A Step Up Academy, which has a location at the Abington Friends School in Jenkintown and an annex at the Center School in Abington, offers opportunities for students who would thrive in inclusive environments. Students at A Step Up Academy also receive services they need to be productive learners and engage with others, including speech and language pathology and occupational therapy.

“[When I saw the AFS space], it was one of those moments where something is put in front of you, and it’s a defining moment to either move forward or not—I just grabbed on,” said Misher. “It was a herculean amount of work to actually make it happen. The first day there were only two students; by the end of the first year we had seven. We’ve really grown every year.”

A Step Up Academy and Misher’s career as an associate professor of art might seem completely different, but she said that her artwork has improved from her experiences with the Academy.

“It truly has changed who I am as an artist, my personal work has shifted from questions of decoration to really looking at the social aspects of autism in a community,” said Misher. “It doesn’t just affect the person with autism it affects everybody. It affects a whole family and not enough is talked about. I think that when you’re a visual storyteller you reach people in a different way. So, all of my work now is really about telling those stories, which I don’t think would have happened if my kids went to another school.”