Jeff Sonn stands next to a historical timeline of Lakeland School, located in Elkhorn. Although Sonn’s son graduated from Lakeland School a few years ago, he remains active in the Friends of Lakeland School because he wants people to know about the school and its special history.


Jeff Sonn is bringing the waffle irons and the mix.

In 17 years, the grateful father has never missed being part of “Waffles with Santa.”

The reason is simple: He wants to give back to the special-education school that made a huge difference in his son’s life.

Young people ages 3 to 21 attend Elkhorn’s Lakeland School, which offers highly structured programs to prepare them for life.

On Saturday, Dec. 8, Sonn and other eager volunteers will make about 1,000 waffles in four hours to raise money for the school.

Sonn is president of the nonprofit Friends of Lakeland School, which raises money to buy important things that are often beyond the school’s budget.

He invites people to the school for good food and warm camaraderie.

But he also hopes they will read and be inspired by the new 16-foot-long timeline, which was unveiled in October on a prominent wall.

“We want people to know that Walworth County was a leader in special education,” Sonn said.

Friends group member Joe Guido and Sonn put together the timeline, highlighting the school’s milestones.

It begins with a visionary named Sheridan Ellsworth.

Ellsworth was the county’s school superintendent from 1949 to 1956 and inspired what is now Lakeland School.

Early in his career, Ellsworth heard from the mother of a girl who did not learn as quickly as her peers. The child’s classmates teased her, and she quickly lost interest in school.

Ellsworth wanted the child and others like her to be able to learn at their own pace.

Long before schools were required to educate students with special needs, Ellsworth thought of the idea of a separate school. He organized Walworth County supervisors, educators and residents.

In response, the county board created a special services committee. The committee came to the county board with a request for money to establish a county rural program.

In September 1950, the committee launched a pilot project with 14 students, who met in rented space at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Elkhorn.

As word spread, more children with disabilities came to the school to realize their potential.

In 1954, Walworth County appropriated $87,000 to build the Special School, as it was called then.

A year later, the school was dedicated in Elkhorn, and 47 students attended.

With the school’s opening, Walworth County became the first rural county in the nation to provide a stand-alone school for children with disabilities.

Eventually, 10 rooms and a state-of-the-art swimming pool were added as enrollment increased.

Fast forward to 2006, when the county board approved a new Lakeland School building on County NN.

Today, about 200 students attend classes there.

The school and its programs offer a rare resource for the 15 school districts in Walworth County and for families in and surrounding the county, Sonn said.

Parents have an option. They decide with educators whether it is better for their children to attend Lakeland School or a local school in their district.

With the exception of a school in Brown County, “there is no other rural county in America that offers families a choice,” Sonn said. “Some families have moved to Walworth County because of Lakeland School.”

On a recent morning, students moved freely in the hallways of the building with a sense of independence.

“Our kids know this is their school, and there’s a lot of power in it,” said Tracy Moate, director of special education. “Kids feel a sense of calm and ownership.”

For Sonn, the school was a life-changer.

His son, Kian, attended Lakeland until he was 21 and graduated three years ago. Kian now works at the Whitewater food pantry.

“It’s a miracle,” Sonn said, referring to Lakeland School.

“It’s the most devastating thing in the world when you find out your child was born with a disability,” he said. “But when you find out about this school, your life begins to be normal again.”

Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

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