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Extending the Reach of St. Mary’s Special Services: New Early Intervention Program Helps More Students in North County

posted Nov 22, 2017, 7:19 AM by Cara Koen   [ updated Nov 22, 2017, 7:20 AM ]

Students at six north county Catholic preschools and elementary schools now have access to the services of a social worker and speech language pathologist during their regular school day.  About 18 months ago, the Department of Special Education in the Archdiocese Catholic Education Office began planning for the future of its St. Mary’s Special Services Day Care and Preschool, which had been serving children 6 weeks to 5 years old as an inclusionary day care program located next door to Trinity Catholic High School.  Dr. Cathy Johns, who oversees the Department of Special Education, said the goal was to increase the reach of the special education services that St. Mary’s can provide.  “Our mission is to help each student reach his/her God-given potential,” said Dr. Johns. “We saw a great opportunity to connect with the Catholic elementary schools in north county in order to serve the students already enrolled in Catholic education who may need some early intervention services.” 

The decision was to move from a site-based approach to a community service provider model, and so the daycare and preschool closed at the end of June 2017. When the new school year began in August 2017, St. Mary’s Special Services began its new Early Intervention program at six schools: Christ Light of the Nations, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, Holy Spirit, St. Ann, St. Norbert, and St. Rose Philippine Duchesne. As a standalone daycare and preschool, St. Mary’s had served between 35-50 children each year, with about 25% of those requiring special early intervention services.  By going into these six schools, the program has already enabled early intervention screenings for over 250 children and is providing special education services to over 60 children, and counting.

Carol McCandless, who served as the director of the preschool for 19 years, is now bringing her expertise in social work to reach more children in Catholic schools in north county, connecting them with outside agencies and resources. By moving from the site-specific program to a community-based service provider in several schools, St. Mary’s Special Services now screens students to help identify early needs, provides services to students who qualify, and connects students and their families with the resources they need to be successful in school.

“This program is blossoming,” said McCandless. “We have felt very welcomed at the schools, and the teachers and students are responding well to our presence.  It’s rewarding to be able to reach many more students than we could when we were at only one site.” 

Classroom teachers now have an on-site resource to address student needs as they arise. McCandless has worked with teachers to screen students using a Student Risk Screening Scale (SRSS-IE), which uses a simple rating scale on a student’s internal and external behaviors that may indicate a student’s need for extra support. McCandless can then consult with parents and guardians and work with students during the regular school day, giving them tools to self-regulate thoughts and feelings and referring them to additional services and support as needed. McCandless is currently working weekly with approximately 30 students at the six schools, and is available for consultation as needed. 

In addition to social work, St. Mary’s Special Services brings speech language pathology services to classrooms. Allison Hill, Speech Language Pathologist, spent the first quarter of the school year screening preschool, kindergarten, 1st grade and some 2nd grade students at the six schools. The screening is for speech (production of sounds), language (cognitive understanding and use) and fluency.  Of the 230 students who were screened, 45 were referred for further evaluation and others will be monitored and re-screened in the spring. Hill is now providing individual and group therapy sessions to address the students’ needs identified in the screening.  “We use Individual Learning Plans (ILPs) for each student, and since I’m now on-site at each school twice per week, I have the opportunity to more easily connect with the students and their teachers,” said Hill.  “It feels great to know that we are already helping more students than we could before. Being in the same building with more students who need our services makes it easier to intervene early.”

Ms. Hill has put together a quick list of activities parents can use at home to encourage speech and language development with their children.  Click here to download the PDF.

These early intervention screening and therapy services are provided at no cost to families and are in addition to those they may also be receiving from other agencies or the public school districts. St. Mary’s Special Services Early Intervention Program is funded by the Annual Catholic Appeal and United Way of Greater St. Louis, with no charge to participating schools for this first year.  Dr. Johns is exploring funding options for future years including the possibility of additional grants and some financial commitment from participating schools.

The Department of Special Education also operates the Academy at St. Sabina in north county, which is a K-8 elementary school for children whose learning disabilities, attention deficits, or other cognitive processing deficits require an alternate setting to experience educational success other than the general education classroom.

For more information about the Catholic Education Office’s Department of Special Education, visit http://archstl.org/education/page/about-special-education-schools