Students from Spectrum Academy, a North Salt Lake, Utah-based charter school for students with...

Students from Spectrum Academy, a North Salt Lake, Utah-based charter school for students with high-functioning autism.


(This article was originally published by the Utah Transit Authority.)

Utah Transit Authority (UTA) has launched a new initiative called Community Rides, which highlights community groups and nonprofit organizations that use UTA bus and rail services to accomplish their objectives. Through this monthly post we aim to shed light on their important contributions to encouraging ridership and fostering community.

This month, we spoke to the students and staff at Spectrum Academy, who have been riding UTA for years now. “I got into the school seven years ago,” says senior Dakota Van Ormen. In those seven years, he’s ridden FrontRunner to school almost every day.

Worth the Travels

“I live thirty miles away from school,” he continues. “I’m one of six siblings, and my brothers and sisters can walk to school. My dad will drop me off at the train station on his way into work, and then I ride FrontRunner there. It’s easy, it’s comfortable, and it works best for my situation.”

Dakota attends school far away from his home because he is one of the lucky winners of Spectrum Academy’s lottery system. There are hundreds of kids on the waiting list, all vying for a spot in Utah’s premier charter school for students with high functioning autism.

“We have students from all over the state commuting to school,” says Liz Cheney, a para-instructional coach at the school. “There are students coming from as far away as Ogden or Provo. We have even had families move to Utah from out of state so their students can attend Spectrum. There have been kids from New York, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Florida. They recognize there is a shortage of schools like this, and they’re willing to make the trip to get their kids in.”

Spectrum Academy, located in North Salt Lake, has been in operation since 2006 when a group of parents took it upon themselves to ensure the academic success of their children with autism. Since then, Spectrum as expanded from an elementary program to include both elementary and high school programs at multiple campuses, both in North Salt Lake and Pleasant Grove. There is now a student population of more than 1,100 students, with more than 500 students on the waiting list.

“Spectrum is a safe place; a safe environment,” Liz continues. “Many of our students come from a background of bullying. When they come here, we make sure teachers and students all help make this a safe space. It’s really nice for everyone involved.”

Invaluable Social Skills

One of the most important parts of Spectrum’s curriculum is teaching students about responsibility and the social skills needed to interact and thrive in the “real world.” Liz feels the forty students riding UTA to school every day are getting an extra dose of this education through their experiences on public transportation.

“It’s a good way for them to learn about their environment. They learn from the mistakes they make on the system, like getting on the wrong bus or missing the train. They learn how to interact with other adults, like train hosts and transit police officers. They learn how to talk to other people, ask for directions, and other life skills.”

UTA is Here to Help

In the recent case of a car and train collision a few weeks ago, the students were left stranded at their stops. As a part of their work to make sure all passengers arrived at their destinations that morning, UTA operations teams not only picked the kids up, but they went the extra mile and drove them all the way to their school. As the transit-riding students are usually picked up in a bus driven by a teacher at the FrontRunner station, the fact the UTA employees went above and beyond for their students meant a lot to everyone involved.

Interacting with the UTA employees on the system is a highlight for the students.

“I have a favorite train host,” adds Dakota. “His name is Glenn. Sometimes my friends and I will purposefully miss the train so we can get on the next train Glenn is working on. He always has candy for us and jokes around with us.”

Dakota, like the many other Spectrum students riding UTA to school, feels he’s greatly benefited from the experience. “It’s quiet and comfortable, along with being easier and more convenient for me and my family. We live in Murray, but I also have family in Ogden, and if I want to go and see them after school, all I have to do is go north instead of south on the train. Riding the train is easier for me than driving, and I love talking to the train hosts and transit police officers.”

With the unique curriculum, long waiting list, and accomplished group of current students and alumni, Spectrum Academy is primed for success for many years to come. The students and teachers all feel UTA will be a part of their continuing success as they move forward.

“I wish more of our students would ride UTA,” says Liz. “It gives them unique experiences and teaches them things which can’t be replicated in the classroom.”

About the Author: Samantha Aramburu currently works as the Community Relations Specialist at UTA