Corban Boain and two of his classmates sat at a table with their teacher for a lesson on the five senses. Teacher Daniela Morales pointed to a diagram of the human body as they went over each sense.
“I see with my — what’s this part?” Morales asked Corban as she pointed to her eyes.
“Eyes,” he responded affirmatively.
The first-grader is one of the newest students at the Academy of St. Louis, an independent, private Catholic school in Chesterfield focused on educating children with special needs. The school, which was founded in 2002, provides individualized education for students with cognitive learning disabilities from preschool to 12th grade, with a large population of students on the autism spectrum. The school is accredited by AdvancED-NCA and recently was recognized as an Association of the Christian Faithful, approved by the Archbishop of St. Louis as an established part of the local Church.
The academy prides itself on a small student-to-teacher ratio of about 3:1, said executive director Terri O’Daniel; since the coronavirus outbreak, the school has nearly doubled in size. Many of the school’s newest families left public schools after seeing their children struggle with distance learning. The academy began classes Aug. 22 with five days of in-person learning.
“Most of them are saying, ‘We feel this is providential that God has brought us here,’” O’Daniel said. “The academy is a faith-filled, Catholic environment where students can flourish academically at their own pace while growing socially, building confidence and personal achievement, learning from understanding, patient teachers and developing friendships for the first time. We have different pathways for different kids. We want to serve those students who have not found the right environment in a typical school setting.”
The school works with each student and their family to create an Individual Development Plan, which is focused on specific strategies and personal goals to help the student build the necessary skills for life after high school. Classrooms offer mixed grades focusing on academic, functional and social aspects of a student’s learning. Teachers are trained to recognize the signs of trauma in a child and to build an environment that promotes healing and recovery.
The academy also works with older students to develop a pathway as they transition from high school and into the next chapter of their lives. For some students, that might be college. For others, it might include developing job-readiness skills.
“We try to help each student recognize their gifts and challenges,” O’Daniel said. “We talk a lot about identity. Our main goal with our students is to help them understand that their identity comes from God. God is your creator, and He has a plan and a path for you. We help guide them along that path leading to a happy, fulfilled life.”
Jim and Lisa Lyon’s daughter, Emily, is a junior who has spina bifida. Their daughter already has conversations with her teachers and classmates about her plans beyond graduation.
As parents, “we’re thinking about it from a different perspective,” said Jim Lyon. “Can Emily live on her own, or with a friend — does she have the skills and capacity to live outside of our home someday, and the ability to support herself to live independently?”
Emily has some of those conversations at home, too. “I don’t think she ever would have thought about it without the influence of the academy,” Jim Lyon said. “The school really gives her the opportunity to be herself. To have a place where she feels like she can have those conversations, that’s been great for us as a family.”
Corban Boain attended a public school for Kindergarten, but when the district moved to distance learning last spring, his mother, Jennifer Boain, immediately noticed changes in her son — including social anxiety over Zoom meetings and running/wandering from caregivers. The Boains, who attend Ascension Parish in Chesterfield, learned about the academy from a private occupational therapist who was working with their son.
“The experience has been great,” Jennifer Boain said. “The morning of the first day of school was the only time he’s shown resistance. In the past, he had days where he didn’t want to go to school. Now he cooperates.” A family helper who picked up Corban from school the first day texted Jennifer and said, “He wanted me to text you to tell you he loves his new school and his teachers.”
They’ve also noticed that Corban talks more about God. “He loves to talk about Jesus,” Jennifer Boain said. “We’ve had philosophical conversations about Jesus. He tells them, ‘I pray at home.’”
>> Academy of St. Louis at a glance