From Non-verbal Kids to Poets and Activists, a Plymouth Family and ISD 287 Build Success Together

Serving 11 west metro school districts including Wayzata, ISD 287 is not your standard school district. Intermediate school districts provide specialty services to their member schools, including area learning centers, career and tech centers, Federal Setting IV special education services, care and treatment programs, online learning, gifted education and more.

“We’ve been in operation for nearly 50 years,” ISD 287 Superintendent Sandy Lewandowski says. The district first formed to consolidate area school districts’ career preparation courses. Over time, ISD 287’s role has evolved to meet member districts’ needs.

Their fastest-growing program is Northern Star Online, serving students from member school districts as well as students from across Minnesota. “It’s something we started a long time ago … and we believe we’ve built a foundation of high-quality content,” Lewandowski says.

The specialized programs ISD 287 offers reach a diverse range of students. Area learning centers offer nontraditional learning environments for students at risk of dropping out of school. Career and tech centers let high school juniors and seniors earn high school and college credits in a college setting; the district currently partners with Hennepin Technical College on its Eden Prairie campus. Care and treatment programs serve students in corrections programs and hospitals or treatment settings, sending teachers to these facilities.

One key focus of district resources is teaching students with the most challenging needs. “Students come to us with highest and most unique special ed needs within the educational curriculum. We are the specialists on behalf of our member districts and come at it with more skills and services, and mental health providers come into our facilities,” Lewandowski says. To this end, ISD 287 recently formed a major partnership with the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, which provides specialists to support the district’s intensive program for students with emotional and behavioral disorders.

ISD 287 primarily offers special education services that member districts can’t adequately perform in their own schools. Setting IV students are in a separate facility for the entire school day — the district has five school buildings where students attend, in addition to nearly 100 teachers who go into member schools to provide special education services there.

Indu Eati’s children, Meghana Junnuru, 20, and Chetan Junnuru, 17, are  two students who attend classes as part of ISD 287.  “Both my children were very little when they got a severe nonverbal autism diagnosis,” Eati says. The family tried many therapies over 12 years, but with no success. Both children were expected to remain at a cognitive level of a 1- or 2-year-old.

“Doctors and therapists told us they were not responding, and we should just keep them happy,” Eati says., but this wasn’t easy, especially with Chetan’s increasing behavioral difficulties. After years of specialists insisting that the children’s autism was too severe to expect improvement, the family made what Eati calls toughest decision of their lives , They moved the children to a group home in 2011,  but Chetan’s aggressive behavior increased, leading to his dismissal from the group home after five years.

“What seemed to be a tragic ending to the support from the group home turned into a miracle for the family,” Eati says. When the children started at SEC in January 2017, Meghana’s teacher Katie Bastiansen recognized a spark and set out to unlock Meghana’s potential.

“I think what really frustrated my children over the years was people trying to fit them into a box they didn’t fit. Unfortunately, we didn’t unlock the door to their skills. They have extreme intelligence. They were hyperlexic as little babies, and they know so many languages, but they shut down on us,” Eati says.

With support from principal Jayne Tiedemann, art teacher Sandra Shetka and reading specialist Cathleen Pinkosky, Bastiansen worked to help Meghana tap into her dormant abilities. At the same time, resident artist Chris Martin from Unrestricted Interest was at the school working with students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to help them communicate through creative writing and poetry. Chetan, seeing Meghana’s budding success, insisted on joining her class.

“At home, we were working with the children having them show us one letter at a time on a keyboard, and as they started to point to letters, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh — something is happening here,’” Eati says. With this burst of success, she decided to quit her job in IT and work with her children full-time. Soon after, in a lesson with Martin, Meghana typed her first word with Bastiansen’s support. Bastiansen quickly started to use more and more poetry, and a huge explosion of language and creativity followed.

Over the past few months, Eati says, both siblings made astonishing improvements. “They have transformed themselves into joyful, savvy and adventurous poets and writers with deep expressive abilities and with critical thinking skills,”  she says. “No one can tell from their writings that they cannot even tie their own shoes. They are using poetry to heal their hearts and also to reach the hearts of other individuals with autism.”

Meghana and Chetan have a blog at to express their love for writing and to share their story, thoughts and progress. “Meghana and Chetan were living in a box, and they’ve enjoyed this journey so much in the last year. Now they’re really into autism advocacy and they want to influence school districts and services for autism,” Eati says.

Meghana and Chetan say via email that they’ve seen special education in schools improving. “However, this group at SEC has taken it to a whole different level,” they say. “Our unbiased opinion is that they are pioneering a path that can potentially change the lives of neuro-diverse children like us.”  They explain that educational systems need to work to find each child’s  strengths rather than using teaching practices geared toward neurotypical people. “A vast majority of the older systems do not set up autistic children for success,” they say.

“The shift to new techniques is really hard,” Eati says. “Some of the staff I see are using really old techniques, and it takes a lot of courage to use new techniques.” She says her family has experienced the benefits of innovative approaches at SEC, and her kids’ growth and development is a result of the school’s principal and teachers.

Lewandowski notes that often the students with the highest needs often have difficulty finding success and a program that fits their unique needs. “I like to think we’ve become very creative and successful in finding the ways to unlock the abilities of those students,” she says. “Parents tell us it’s the first time their students have found success. We’re proud of that ability and take it very seriously as our responsibility.”