St. Mary's Special Services is transitioning from a site-based preschool to a service-provider model in North County to reach more preschool-age children with special needs in that area.
The board of directors of St. Mary's Special Services, in consultation with the archdiocesan Catholic Education Office, on March 23 approved a transition from a site-based operation in Spanish Lake to a service-provider model in Catholic preschools and elementary schools throughout North County. The move will triple the number of preschool-age children with special needs they will serve in North County.
As a result, St. Mary's Preschool in north St. Louis County will close at the end of the 2016-17 school year. Located at the former School Sisters of Notre Dame convent at Trinity Catholic High School in Spanish Lake, St. Mary's Preschool has experienced a declining number of students needing special education services. Only eight of the 39 students currently enrolled there have special needs, said Kurt Nelson, superintendent for Catholic education in the archdiocese.
Since 1990, St. Mary's Special Services has provided inclusionary preschool and therapy for children with special needs from 6 months to 5 years old. St. Mary's also has a preschool in Affton, which will remain open. Assistance will be provided to families and staff members in their search for other options for child care and employment.
Beginning in the 2017-18 school year, St. Mary's will provide a speech-language pathologist and social worker to at least five Catholic schools in the North County area. The archdiocesan Education Office stated it is still finalizing the list of schools that will participate. The next steps include hiring the professionals and creating the plan for services.
The Catholic Education Office approached principals at 11 schools in North County and identified at least 49 preschool-age students who could benefit from special education services. Officials also looked for numbers of children who are not diagnosed but are considered at-risk, and children who have been affected by other factors, such as trauma, said Cathy Johns, director of curriculum and instruction.
Considerations for identifying the school sites include the ability to serve the most students in need, existing students with special needs in Catholic schools and availability of space to accommodate services. Approximately 75 percent of children they identified as having special needs include a need for speech therapy services, she added.
"We will be able to reach more children with special needs, whether diagnosed or at-risk," Johns said.
With a shift to a service-based model within existing schools, preschool students moving on to kindergarten would be provided services through the transition. "It would provide continuity, which is a real positive," Nelson said. "This also will help with early intervention, to close the gaps before a child enters kindergarten."