Published: Jul 27, 2011 6:24 PM EDT
Updated: Jul 27, 2011 5:25 PM EDT

LEE COUNTY, Fla - When Lee County students arrive at their first day of school on August 8, more than 40 will report to the Goodwill L.I.F.E. Academy, a charter school for students with developmental disabilities.  Students with Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism spectrum disorder, and other intellectual disabilities attend the specialized school without paying any tuition.

Forty may seem like a small number of students, especially for a school that educates both middle and high schoolers.  However, the L.I.F.E. Academy has grown quickly since it opened in 2005.

“Day one, we had six kids,” explains Lynn Pottorf, the school’s principal.  “Within a week we already had a couple more, and by the end of the year, we were already in the teens.  It’s been growing ever since.”

Students residing in Lee County may apply for enrollment at the L.I.F.E. Academy, which is located in Fort Myers’ Edgewood neighborhood.  The school’s program fulfills the educational needs of Special Diploma Options 1 or 2 students, and also accepts students who are postgraduates but have not yet reached the maximum age of 22.

However, academics are only part of the school’s unique curriculum.

“Our school doesn’t just focus on reading, writing, and arithmetic,” says Kirsten O’Donnell of Goodwill Industries of Southwest Florida.  “Our faculty also focuses on life skills and vocational training.  When students graduate from the L.I.F.E. Academy, they’re prepared to live as independently as possible.”

The school also features a specialized vocational training program.  Qualifying students undergo vocational assessments which determine their individual interests, aptitudes, and capabilities.  After the evaluation, the students are exposed to career-related activities, including paid internships.

“The best part of our vocational program is that the graduates are guaranteed a job for a full year,” O’Donnell says.  “We have L.I.F.E. Academy students earning paychecks with employers in the community and also at Goodwill’s stores and offices.”

Parents and guardians who are interested in learning more about the L.I.F.E. Academy are encouraged to call principal Pottorf at (239) 334-4434 or visit the school’s website at  Parents and students are also welcome to attend the school’s open house on Thursday, Aug. 4 at 5:00 p.m