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."