To Top

Meet Dave Nelson of The Community School in Decatur

Today we’d like to introduce you to Dave Nelson.

So, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
I was working on an MBA and headed for a career in technology/consulting when my oldest son Graham was born. He was very difficult from day one, and was diagnosed on the autistic spectrum at age 3. The process of coming to understand him and working with the professionals in his life guided me towards a new career path. As an experienced autism parent, I began talking to a lot of parents newer to the process, and I realized I wanted to work in the field as a professional.

I returned to graduate school at Georgia State University to get a degree in counseling, and began working as a counselor, working in a developmental framework known as the DIR Model pioneered by Dr. Stanley Greenspan. This model focuses on the importance of engagement and reciprocity as key drivers of growth; it also emphasizes the need to support the relationship between caregivers and child as a primary therapeutic element. At the same time, my son was moving in to adolescence and struggling to find his “place” in any school setting. As a result, I decided to focus on education more specifically to try to better meet his needs. After working with an existing school for several years, I decided to start The Community School in fall 2005. What began in my basement with 7 teenagers has evolved into a comprehensive middle and high school and young adult transition program that serves about 40 participants each program year (25 in a tuition-based capacity and another 15 with hourly services), with an age range of 11-35. We provide individualized education and transition programs to a range of people on the autism spectrum.

My own son, who is now 28, lives independently in Connecticut, and is completing a 4-year college degree. Many of the people we have worked with at TCS have graduated college, gotten meaningful employment, moved into independent housing, and developed better relationships with family and friends.

We are proud of our comprehensive approach, which is specifically therapeutic (i.e., social-emotional growth as an essential foundation), and focused not just on the individual but the family as well.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
The evolution of the program has not been entirely smooth, though we have been clear about our guiding philosophy for the entire time and that has served us well, and served our clients well. Some of the challenges have included funding. This is expensive work, and we are a non-profit that must raise almost $200k a year to make ends meet, as we do not charge our families the full cost of the services we provide.

That being said, we have generally been able to attract passionate, smart people, and we are committed to supporting their career development as well as all of our learning in the field, so our clients and families benefit greatly from this commitment.

There are many other struggles related to finances–being able to afford insurance, benefits plan to keep quality employees, and being able to afford a small bus to transport participants to our weekly hiking outing (one of the best experiences our program offers, in some ways, as it draws everyone together but also challenges them to go outside their comfort zone).

We also strive to serve the widest range of families we can. Georgia is a state that does not have huge amounts of public financing of services, especially for participants who are beyond school age, so that makes it challenging for us to serve more needy families.

So, as you know, we’re impressed with The Community School – tell our readers more, for example what you’re most proud of as a company and what sets you apart from others.
Two key things set us apart. First, we are passionate about our particular approach, which focuses on helping the participants we work with know themselves, learn to advocate for themselves, and develop goals that are meaningful to them. We work collaboratively with our participants, and are highly focused on strengthening their ability to manage the emotional ups and downs of everyday life. As a result, we are very process focused–we love to talk things over, to debate and see multiple perspectives and to explore “shades of gray,” that ability to understand that things happen for more than one reason, and that people are usually always motivated by multiple factors, and that it is possible to disagree and still stay connected to each other.

Second, we are committed to making TCS a positive, growth-oriented place to work. We strive to retain our employees with competitive pay and benefits (as best we can), but more importantly through career development–learning new skills and developing on both a personal and professional level. In part, we do this by being transparent about the opportunities that are and are not available at TCS, and we always support our people in moving towards their professional goals as much as possible. It’s a great place to work, and our employee feedback fully supports this assertion.

So, what’s next? Any big plans?
We are considering the possibility of adding a residential program to our services, although we have yet to figure out how to partner with another organization or how to otherwise finance that work. We are also focused on securing our place in the community of Decatur over the long-term, as Decatur is such an accepting progressive small city on the edge of Atlanta that provides an excellent living environment for many of our participants.


  • Full-time tuition-based program 24,200-31,500, depending on specific program.

Contact Info:

Getting in touch: VoyageATL is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More in