AUGUSTA, Ga. — Although the only Catholic special-needs school in Georgia began the new school year at the end of July, classes at Immaculate Conception Catholic School essentially never stopped since the school works on a year-round model.
For the past four years, the school has served students from prekindergarten through high school with cognitive or physical needs. “Our kids may not have a learning disability, but they may not necessarily fit into every crowd, so they are able to come here and be unique and be themselves. This is a real special place,” said Allison Palfy, the school principal and program co-founder.
The plan for this school to transition from traditional learning to a special needs curriculum began with an idea from the late Father Jacek Franciszek Szuster, the former pastor at Church of the Most Holy Trinity. Before the priest died at the age of 47 in 2018, he felt there was a need for a place for Augusta’s children with special needs.
“He had the idea, the heart and kind of got everything going,” said Palfy. A scholarship in the priest’s name was created to help families afford tuition. Some students and their families qualify for the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship, the only state-funded voucher program specifically for special needs students.
Immaculate Conception offers speech language therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy with therapists from local hospitals. “I think this is a huge pro-life mission,” said Debbie DeRoller, the school’s development director. “We are here to not just help Catholic families, we’re here to help an entire community.”
Individual planning is done for students according to where they are academically and intellectually. The average class size is 10 students, with each class having a state-certified special-needs educator and at least one paraprofessional helping students individually.
Palfy is planning to have at least two paraprofessionals in each class this academic year. “There’s a progression of skill work and we start every kid where they need to start, hoping to move at a very fast pace up to where they need to be,” she told the Southern Cross, diocesan newspaper of Savannah.
The extra help in the classroom will better prepare the coming students for what will without a doubt be an interesting school year. The school began two weeks earlier than Catholic schools in the Savannah Diocese.
“If parents are not ready to send their kids back, they don’t feel safe yet based on everything going on, we will provide distance-learning,” said Palfy. “We are offering both options.” With COVID-19 safety precautions and requirements, students will no longer be switching classes, the hiring of more teachers has made it possible to have the teachers come to the students. The classrooms and bathrooms will be cleaned more often, with masks being worn by teachers, temperatures being taken for all staff and students.
“Right now, we have to with the uptick taking place,” said Palfy, who also taught reading at the school. All employees were tested for COVID-19 before the start of the school year and parents are not allowed past the school lobby.
Along with teaching regular subjects, the school also focuses on preparing students for what’s next in life.
“Our goal for all of our kids is to help them become as independent as they possibly can,” said Palfy so students are taught how to do job interviews, write a resume, cook, clean and do laundry. Older students can take classes on how to budget their money and how to not get into credit card debt, which Palfy calls “real world math.”
The unique experience students receive at Immaculate Conception is one that Palfy hopes doesn’t remain unique.
“We had to fight hard to get this program started,” she said, adding: “I’d like to see one of these schools in every deanery.”
The author, Donnell Suggs, is a reporter for the Southern Cross, diocesan newspaper of Savannah.