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A special place

AUGUSTA, GA.-The only Catholic special needs school in the state of Georgia began the 2020-21 school year Wednesday, July 29. To be honest, classes at Immaculate Conception Catholic School never really stop as the school works on a 12-month/year round model.  Students from the ages of 3-21 attend school at the 107-year old institution affiliated with and across the street from Church of the Most Holy Trinity, Augusta. For the last four years those students have been young people with special needs, not only cognitive but physical. Immaculate Conception gives these gifted youngsters a home to learn and grow academically and spiritually without having to necessarily navigate the choppy waters of adolescent that is fitting in and getting along. "The kids in this school don't notice any disabilities," said the school principal and program co-founder Allison Palfy. 

 A Special Place

"This school is open to any child with a physical and cognitive disability. This is a safety place, our kids may not have a learning disabilities, 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." 

The plan for this school to be transitioned from traditional learning to a special needs ciriculum began with an idea from the late father Jacek Franciszek Szuster, the former pastor at Church of the Most Holy Trinity. Before Szuster passed away after a long battle with colon cancer at the age of 47 on September 4, 2018, he felt there was a need for a place for Augusta's children with special needs, a place where parents could feel theirs were getting the care that they needed day in and day out during the school year. "He had the idea, the heart and kind of got everything going," said Palfy, who started the program alongside Szuster. A scholarship in Szuster's name was created to help families afford for their kids to attend school at Immaculate Conception. Some students and their families qualify for the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship, the only state-funded voucher program in the state specifically for special needs students. Palfy, with a catch in her throat, reiterated the school's mission: "The school is open to any child with a disability."

There aren't boarding facilities on or near the inner-city campus but that doesn't stop students from nearby Aiken, South Carolina for example, and other parts of Georgia from attending school everyday. Immaculate Conception also offers speech language therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy which are performed by professional therapists from local hospitals. "We have a contract with the hospital and they actually send representatives to work with our students," Palfy pointed out. If there is a need for a student, there's most likely a solution at Immaculate Conception Catholic School. "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."

Every Wednesday morning students and teachers make the 200-foot trip across Telfair Street to attend Mass at Church of the Most Holy Trinity. "They get to participate in the sacraments of the church and I think that's very important," said Palfy. For the non-verbal students Mass is made extra special by Church of the Most Holy Trinity pastor father Mariusz Fuks, who celebrates the mass week after week. His patience and care for the students makes the experience fun. "He does a great job of presenting whatever the Gospel or the readings are down at a level where all of our kids understand," said Palfy. "It's a lot of fun so we prepare our kids because he's very interactive with asking them questions and wanting their participation. He's very good with working with them."

"We've been blessed," added DeRoller.

The tuition at Immaculate Conception differs due to the specific needs of a student. "Before we started the program we looked at similar programs across the southeast, we didn't just pull our prices out of the air," said Palfry, who also doubles as the school's cafeteria manager, otherwise known as the lunch lady. In order to save money Palfry makes the school lunches every day and even earned her certification in order to meet state guidelines. Breakfast is not provided, but "there are plenty of snacks because we know kids get hungry during the day," noted Palfry.  

Sacrifices are made to have a school like this one in this community. "At the end of the day if someone has the dream to be here we do everything we can to make it a reality for them," said Palfy. "Money is important but that's not the most important thing." 

DeRoller shared a story of a single mother that gets help, along with the father Szuster scholarship, from family members and her church to pay for her child to attend Immaculate Conception. "Financially she's going to make sure her kid stays here," added DeRoller.

Ready for the school year to begin

A regular school day begins with morning prayers, announcements, and then class begins. "I love that we can pray together," said Palfry. Individual planning is done for students according to when they get to Immaculate Conception and where they are academically and intellectually. There are small classes that guarantee individual care. The average class size at Immaculate Conception is 10 kids, with each class having a state certified special needs educator and at least one para professional. Palfy is planning to have at least two para professionals 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." 

The extra help in the classroom will better prepare the coming students for what will without a doubt be an interesting school year. The Diocese recently released a reopening plan that will have the school year begin August 10. Immaculate Conception, being one of a kind in the diocese in regard to its mission to provide a special needs education, will begin two weeks earlier. "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." In regards to 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 will be tested for COVID-19 before the start of the coming school year. Parents will not be allowed past the lobby. 

Along with the English, math, science, writing and the arts, the school focuses on preparing students for what's next in life. With many graduates going on to college, many others attempt to enter the workforce. What they learn at Immaculate Conception is geared towards preparing them for the rest of their lives. Or at least that's the hope according to the faculty. "Our goal for all of our kids is to help them become as independent as they possibly can," said Palfy. "What is always on our mind is real life, whatever that may look like." Students are taught how to properly interview for jobs, write a resume, how to cook, clean, how to do laundry. 12th graders can take classes on how to budget their money and how to not get into credit card debt. Palfy calls this "real world math."

 The unique experience students receive at Immaculate Conception is one that Palfry hopes doesn't remain unique. 

 "We had to fight hard to get this program started," said Palfy. "Once it got going people saw the benefits. I'd like to see one of these schools in very deanery." 

 

 

Basharat Arts Foundation gives St. Teresa's students the gift sight

ALBANY, Ga. - St. Teresa Catholic School vice principal and second grade teacher Linda Johnson saw it first. It was seconds before the others looking at the photo also saw what she recognized as the beauty of the photo, the beauty of that moment captured by photographer Steve McCurry. A pair of young boys, one Black, the other white, sat lazily in a hammock, wide smiles on their faces. Below their images were their shadows, similar in every way the boys were not, Johnson used that to express her feelings on the 100-plus images posted around the school. “This was no accident, it truly is a gift from God that this exhibit is here,” said Johnson, a mother of four who has taught at St. Teresa’s for decades. “We teach our children that we are all members of the family of God and this is what the family of God looks like.”

Johnson’s point: The boys may look different but just like their shadows they are more the same than different.

The Besharat Arts Foundation, based in Atlanta, brought the “Art in School: The Faces of Innocence” installment to St. Teresa Catholic School, Albany as the first of three series of photos by award-winning photographer Steve McCurry that will be making their rounds to the school. McCurry, the founder of ImagineAsia, a non-profit organization working to provide resources to children and young adults in Afghanistan, was pleased that the series of photos unearth such emotional responses. “I’m glad to be sharing my art and my experiences with those kids,” said McCurry by phone from New York Tuesday evening. “I think it is important for them to see other cultures and other kids who look like them.”

The Besharat Arts Foundation agrees with that premise. “At Besharat, our goal is to nurture empathy, that ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Our similarities can bring us closer to each other, or our superficial differences can drive us apart.”

Similar exhibits have been installed in 47 schools, 13 in France and 345 in the United States. “We all need to learn respect and understanding of different cultures, religions and ethnicities,” says McCurry, who spent summers at his Aunt and Uncles home in Atlanta as a kid and has a “fondness for Georgia.”

The photos at St. Teresa are of young people from as far away as Saskya, Tibet, Oaxaca, Mexico, Rome, Italy, Mandalay, Burma and as close to home as Lancaster, Pennsylvania. In the photos the children are smiling and serious, playing and working, on land and in water, alone and with friends. They are kids just like the students at St. Teresa’s and that is what Johnson likes most about the exhibit. “Our motto is ‘One family, one mission, one hope’ and we are so grateful for this opportunity,” said Johnson. Of one picture of a boy from Nuristan, Afghanistan, a worn wool newsboy cap covering his head, one student said to her, “He looks like he could be my friend.”

St. Teresa’s Public Relations Coordinator Katie Jenkins, herself a St. Teresa’s alumna, has three children attending the school and thinks the exhibit is a welcome addition to the decor. The photos have been placed in both the middle school and high school buildings, in the cafeteria, hallways and right outside of the school’s main office. They have become a part of the school. “I think it is awesome for our children to have this opportunity,” said Jenkins. “The photos bring a lot of diversity to the school and we really appreciate the message the Besharat Arts Foundation is sending. It is important for the students to see how other kids live.” 

The exhibit will have a series of wildlife photos in the next installment and following that will have a series of photos focusing on art history to close the exhibit. Three private schools in Georgia have been selected to host similar exhibits. St. Teresa’s alumnus and Besharat Arts Foundation Board of Directors member Joe Scherberger brokered the union between the school and the foundation.

A photo of a student at his desk in a schoolhouse in Omo Valley, Ethiopia, a focused look on his face, brings viewers, teachers, administrators and students back to reality. Their kids in Albany are just like other kids from all over the world. They are students hard at work.  “It brings it back to the basics,” said Jenkins.

“We believe by exposing children to great art from around the world, they will acquire a gut-level understanding and empathy for the spectacular beauty of our planet and its people,” said Besharat.

Just kids and shadows. All one and the same.

 

 

 

 

Diocese sets August 10 date for parish-sponsored schools to begin academic year

SAVANNAH, GA.- The Diocese of Savannah is preparing to open schools August 10 with each of the 13 schools within the diocese having already submitted tentative COVID-19 safety plans for how they will be preparing students, parents, faculty and staff during what has been an unprecedented past couple of months. Benedictine Military School, Savannah (who will open for classes August 3), Mount de Sales Academy, Macon and St. Vincent's Academy are all independent and will have individual start times. Immaculate Conception, Augusta, the only special needs school within the diocese, will begin classes on July 29. As of Thursday, July 23 start dates for classes at Mount de Sales and St. Vincent’s had not been set.

A Zoom meeting that included Senior Director, Department of Catholic Education and Superintendent of Catholic Schools Michelle Kroll and all 13 principals of the aforementioned parish-sponsored, diocesan-sponsored schools took place Friday, July 17. The purpose being to better get on the same page regarding the upcoming start date. "The schools have pretty much finished their initial plans for reopening," said Kroll during a recent interview with the Southern Cross. She explained that ideas ranging from how to keep water fountains safe for use to using disposal lunch trays have been presented. "We want to reassure parents that we are working to make sure the environments are safe. For me the two most important tasks are a safe environment and letting parents know that we are doing our best to make sure that kids are safe and personnel are safe."

Students are going to be allowed to physically attend school again because there will be less contact with the outside world, and thus less opportunity to potentially spreading the virus. That means less involvement with parents and visitors inside of the school buildings and facilities in most cases. "We want to be sure we are addressing those needs so that we can get back into some type of routine with children, because the truth of it is that we get kids for 13 years, from kindergarten to grade 12, and it's during that type when they learn the life skills that help them function well in society and to be able to navigate those social interactions. If we take away a year that's significant." 12 of the parish-sponsored, diocesan-sponsored schools have a preschool program. 

Social distancing will be an important part of getting back into schools as well. Some of the schools within the diocese will have an easier time than others due to their size. Kroll used St. Anne-Pacelli Catholic School, Columbus and St. Mary on the Hill Catholic School, Augusta, both big schools in comparison to others, and Immaculate Conception Catholic School, Augusta and St. Teresa Catholic School, Albany, smaller schools with limited space, as examples of how social distancing may not be conducted the same. "Social distancing may not look the same for those larger schools," said Kroll who spoke about moving desks and tables in classrooms around to better honor the six-feet recommendation from the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

Wearing mask will also be something that schools will consider making mandatory. "We are allowing schools to make that decision themselves," said Kroll. "I'm not going to tell them that they can't make mask mandatory. Aquinas High school, Augusta is starting out with masks, so let's see how it goes. There's just not always an easy answer either way to be honest. So we do our best to make good decisions based on the data that we have and how we understand children to behave during social interactions." 

Kroll went on to use examples of how well high school juniors and seniors, upperclassmen may be able to adapt to distance learning better than still developing children in lower school and elementary school. 'The foundational years, the early elementary all the way to intermediate grades, those kids really need to be in school," said Kroll, who is also a mother. "All of the initial data that we have has really indicated that we can do this in a safe way."

According to the CDC there are smaller percentages of children contracting COVID-19 (1.7%) compared to that of adult and young adults in this country. "We want parents to trust us and we want to trust parents," said Kroll. "Because if their child is exhibiting symptoms, please keep them home. That trust relationship works both ways. We trust you to do your part and we're going to do our part."

There is another option however. Though limited, there will be a virtual learning option for parents that don't feel safe sending their kids back to school. "There will be some [distance learning] depending upon the needs of the students and the ability of the school," said Kroll.  "It may not be totally online, but there are some online components. The only kids that we will be working with online on a regular basis are those children that have any type of auto-immune deficiency."

According to Kroll the teachers within the diocese are ready to get back to work in the classrooms as well. "I would say that probably the majority, I'd say 90 percent of our teachers are chomping at the bit to get back into the classroom. They understand the value, and they may have some underlying fears but they are willing to set those aside in order to do what they are called to do. I think returning to school is going to be very beneficial to everybody."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Beginnings

By Rachel Balducci

Henry and Isabel started school last week. Thank you, Jesus!

Ever since Isabel started preschool, I’ve taken a picture on the first day of school with all our kids lined up in front of the staircase. The very first year we did this, all five of our boys were looking sharp in their school uniform white shirt and khaki pants. Henry had on shorts, part of the elementary uniform while middle schoolers Augie and Charlie stood next to high schoolers Elliott and Ethan. Elliott was to the right of Ethan since he shot up like a weed at the end of middle school. All my little duckies in a row, nice and neat and sharp.

Isabel was first in line, to the left of her brothers. In the picture, she sports a cute little green skort because she did not yet wear a uniform. It is all precious and a sight to behold my entire world, and focus right there in a neat little line.

As the years have passed, the number in the line-up has dwindled. When Ethan graduated high school and went off to college, we had our first year with just five in the picture. And that number has quickly changed since we’ve had four high school graduates in the last five years—the number varies on such a regular basis.

We saw so many changes in just a short amount of time.

The picture I took this year was just Henry and Isabel standing in front of the stairs. No more tiny siblings were standing next to the older, lumbering ones. Isabel is in fifth grade, and Henry is in seventh. For the first time in almost ten years, there is not a Balducci boy in our high school.

I took the picture, and Isabel asked if she could text it to dad and to the four big brothers, all in college now. Instead of sending it to our family group text, she sent it individually, and I got individual responses back from each of the boys. “Makes me sad,” said one of them. Another sent a crying emoji. One brother loved the picture.

How did I feel about it? I wondered, especially after seeing the range of emotions from my sons. We are down to two at home, two whose lives we fully keep track of. It’s strange and more relaxing and different.

It’s wonderful.

There’s a way I could well up with emotion and feel sad and lament the passage of time. I suppose I could focus on those years that all my babies were together under my roof, all going to the same school, on the same sports teams, and riding everywhere with me in my giant twelve-passenger van.

Those were wonderful years, of course! And even though life is much easier now, I really did love washing all those uniforms and making all those lunches (I loved it even when I didn’t!).

When I was a younger mama and so aware of the gift of this full house (even when I wasn’t!), I sometimes feared the future. I could not imagine these babies of mine growing up and graduating high school and moving away. Would they really leave me? How could this be?

And then it started to happen. And I survived.

And better than that, it has been pretty awesome. Of course, there are hiccups and challenging moments, growing pains, and moments of loneliness. I do miss my boys when they are away! I love these children of mine.

But! But, what is so extraordinary is how your world expands as your children get older. I love that instead of one small bubble that we all exist within, there is now a much more giant orb where we circulate. We have more interests and experiences and activities. The world seems more significant, with even more adventures to enjoy!

What was once so scary to me has now become a great joy. New seasons bring a lot of unknown. When I remember to trust in the Lord and his great love for me and my husband and each of our children, I can find peace and assurance that God is there with us as we go about our way.

Trio of IHM Sisters join St. James Catholic School staff

SAVANNAH, GA.- St. James Catholic School administration, staff, students and parents welcomed a trio of new staff members last week. Sisters Joan Felicia O’Reilly, IHM, Virginia Michael Scirocco, IMH, and Amanda Marie Russell, IMH, were introduced to the parishioners following Sunday Mass at St. James Church, Savannah, August 16. This year the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IMH) are also preparing to celebrate the 175th anniversary of their institution.

Sister O’Reilly, a native Philadelphian, will serve her second stint as Principal at St. James, she previously served as principal from 1997-2001 before being named assistant superintendent and serving a three year stint from 2001-2003. She is pleased to be back in Savannah after so many years and is looking forward to a new way of doing things at St. James. “I am very happy to be back, this is a great place,” said O’Reilly from behind her desk after school Tuesday, August 18. “I never thought I would be back but I’m happy I am.”

Sister Scirocco will hold the position of local superior while also assisting principal O’Reilly. Born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised in Miami, Florida, Scirocco is familiar with Georgia after spending time working at a Catholic school in Decatur (Ga.) from 1989-1994. She is making her return to the peach state amid a pandemic and understands this is a new set of circumstances she will be worshiping, praying and now working in. “I’m very glad to be back here in Georgia,” said Scirocco, who added that she enjoys the beach.

“It’s exciting to be in Savannah,” said Sister Russell, who has never worked in Georgia. The Doylestown, Pennsylvania native is looking forward to seeing the city’s many sights when things calm down a bit. “It’s good to be down south, I have been hearing from the kids about the many things to do here and their favorite places to eat and places to go,” added the eighth-grade Math and religion teacher.

A Catholic Education

Regarding a Catholic education and its importance both Scirocco and Russell believe it is their mission to lead children in this way. “It educates the whole person, the spiritual, the emotional, the social,” said Scirocco. “This is one of the hallmarks of a Catholic education.”

“I feel so blessed to be nurturing the faith in these young people,” said Russell, herself a young woman. “There is nothing like this educational experience.”

A quick smile and friendly demeanor, O’Reilly understands that her job as principal, particularly now, is just as much caretaker as it is educator and administrator. “I don’t know any other lifestyle or way of education,” said O’Reilly, who attended Catholic school from kindergarten through college. “A Catholic education helps build the students' relationship with God. If we are not doing that, we’ve failed.”

Partners with Parents

COVID-19 and the subsequent worries about how students will adjust to learning in-school or virtually, or in some cases both, can have parents and caregivers concerned. The same can be said for teachers as they re-enter the classrooms around the diocese with the usual way of doing things a bit different these days. En route to entering the office at St. James there are a number of opportunities for one to sanitize their hands. There are also signs around campus asking that students, teachers and visitors wear masks. Sisters O’Reilly, Scirocco and Russell more than understand the challenges ahead.

“We partner with parents so that we work with them, hopefully with the same values, same goals in mind,” said O’Reilly. “I believe this partnership implies communication. These p[eopel entrust their kids to us.”

Scirocco piggybacked on the communication theme. “Communication is key with parents,” she said. “It’s important to keep those lines open because parents are the first educators in their children’s lives.”

Let kids be kids

With so much going on in the world there can be added pressure on students to excel. Sisters O’Reilly, Scirocco and Russell, adjusting to their new surroundings aside, believe it is a major part of their mission to “Allow the kids to be kids again,” said Russell. “Just let them be joyful and silly. For my students this is their last year here and you want them to enjoy it together.”

O’Reilly agrees. “Try to keep things as normal as possible for the kids by continuing to make this [school] a stabilizing place for them. I can tell from what I have been hearing and seeing that most of the kids are glad to be back.”

“I think it is hard to look too far ahead,” said Scirocco. “We are going to take it a day at a time and do the best we can each day.”

Asked how those days will begin, Sister O’Reilly quickly answered, “Everything we do begins and ends in prayer.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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