This story is published with the permission of the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia. Written by Deb Litman, with photography by Andrea Cipriani-Mecchi.
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It’s a Tuesday morning at Villa Maria School in Timonium, Maryland, and Sister Joyce Helfrich and other staff members are greeting students as they get off the bus at this suburban school set among the rolling hills. This routine serves two purposes. It helps the students feel welcome and it allows staff members to get a feel for where students are coming from on any given day. It’s one of the constants that students can count on at Villa Maria, a 12-month, day and residential school that provides intensive educational and clinical services for children ages 6-13 with severe emotional, learning, and other disabilities.
For Sister Joyce, being at Villa Maria is a natural fit. Her ministry has focused on special education since the 1970s when she realized as a young teacher in the Catholic schools that there was not enough being done for elementary school students struggling to learn to read. “Remedial reading services at that time were very limited,” said Sister Joyce. “There was a remedial reading teacher who would take a few students out of their regular classroom each week to work with them but it wasn’t enough. I felt that if there were a special education classroom, children could be given what they needed to learn every day within their own classroom environment.”
It was at that point that Sister Joyce decided to pursue a master’s degree in special education and reading and, at the same time, developed a dedicated classroom in her school for children that weren’t being adequately served in the regular classroom. Forty years later, Sister Joyce is still just as passionate about helping children who struggle to learn get the most out of their educational experience. “It is so important that we meet the educational needs of each child,” said Sister Joyce. “This is the foundation for the rest of their lives.”
Complex Little People
Many of the students at Villa Maria where Sister Joyce now teaches face a particularly uphill battle. Typical diagnoses for students at the school include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, oppositional defiance disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and multiple learning disabilities. Many of the children have a history of physical and sexual abuse. Some have been neglected. Some come from families with layers of mental illness. All have arrived at Villa Maria after failing to succeed in a less restrictive educational setting. “It is a complex young person who comes to us,” said Carol Gilbert, education director of the Type 3 Diagnostic/Prescriptive Program at the school.
In a school in which just getting students into the classroom and seated can be a major accomplishment, moving students to a point where they are ready to learn can be an epic struggle. Toward that end, students earn points every hour for their behavior, working on skills such as not cursing, staying in their seats, and being respectful. By the end of each day, they will have had the opportunity to earn up to 100 points which they can use to buy items from the school store or, for residential students, purchase privileges such as extra computer or gym time.
Of course, incentives aren’t always enough to keep disruptive conduct in check. “These children are very intense and unpredictable,” said Sister Joyce. “We have to be on the lookout for any behavior that might evolve into a problem so we can intervene before things become explosive. At the blink of an eye, a student could start fighting or throwing books or upsetting tables.”
Sister Joyce recalled several incidents where she was on the receiving end when a student temporarily lost control. Notably, she remembers these incidents, not with anger or frustration, but with compassion. “We are the most trusted adults that the majority of these students have ever come in contact with,” said Sister Joyce. “While they are with us, they are safe. Many will try to get us to yell and scream at them but it is just not going to happen. It is our job not to get angry. Even when we are in pain, we are called to forgiveness.”
Making A Home
Perhaps nowhere in the school is that kind of compassion more vital than in the residence house, St. Vincent’s Villa. Students who live there either have no place else to live or are too troubled to remain with their families.
Great care is taken to make the residence feel like a true home. Each child has a “primary”—a particular staff member who takes a special interest in him or her. Dinner is served in the residence and children and staff eat together. Each student has his or her own room, clothes, and toys. In the evenings they play games together and get ready for bed together just as a typical family would. On birthdays, children celebrate and receive presents; on Christmas morning staff members are there when students wake to share in the excitement of the day.
More Than The Three Rs
Of course, academics are also an important part of Villa Maria’s mission. According to associate director of education Gregory Matthews, ninety percent of Villa Maria students are one to three years behind academically when they arrive. Some can’t read at all and many have few, if any, math skills. Special intervention programs for reading and math help students with special needs make progress and highly individualized and innovative academic instruction helps break through the barriers of learning and emotional disabilities.
“I try to keep to a regular curriculum but I have to be very flexible and super creative,” said Sister Joyce, who teaches library, media, and reading skills. “These students’ attention is hard to get and even harder to maintain. But it is so important that they have the opportunity to be in a situation where their needs are met so they can learn.”
On-site speech and occupational therapy support students with needs in those areas. Enrichment in art, music, computers, and physical education supplement the core subjects. Students also take part in prevocational programs where they develop independent living skills such as meal-planning, cooking, budgeting, sewing, and woodworking through hands-on activities.
The Whole Picture
In addition to the academic program, the school offers clinical programs that respond to students’ individual emotional and psychological needs. Each child at Villa Maria attends individual therapy once a week to work on issues specific to him or her. Once-a-week group therapy sessions supplement that—focusing on topics such as anger management and social skill development. Three psychiatrists on staff provide diagnostic and prescriptive services and nurses dispense medication to the students who need it. Behavioral specialists help children who need time out of the classroom, therapists are on call to deal with whatever comes up, and case managers make sure that each student is getting what he or she needs.
“It becomes a one-stop shop,” said Doreen Scott, Villa Maria’s clinical supervisor, explaining how important that is for children with the constellation of psychological, emotional, educational, and social issues that Villa Maria students struggle with. “Everyone works as a team—parents, teachers, therapists—and we look at each student as a whole individual.”
Family therapy and parent workshops are part of that holistic approach. “Often these are families who have been looking for help and not finding it where they have been. Parents often say they have finally found what they have been looking for here,” said Doreen.
That was certainly true for Joan and her son Michael who has a multitude of developmental disorders that affect his learning abilities. Michael attended Villa Maria from third through eighth grade and lived in the residence home for seven months. “The move to Villa Maria was great for both of us,” said Joan. “For me the relief was two-fold. The most important thing was that I knew he would be safe there. The other thing, and this was important too, was that we finally felt supported. They didn’t judge Michael at Villa Maria; they loved him. And I went from being condemned as a parent to being affirmed.”
Michael thrived at Villa Maria. Now at 14 years old, he is living at home and attending a special program housed within a public school. No matter where students go after Villa Maria, they know they always have a trusted adult to rely on. “Just today I had a student who is getting ready to leave come up to me and ask, ‘who am I going to talk to at my new school like I talk to you?’” said Doreen. “I gave him my number and told him he can always talk to me, anytime, no matter where he is.”
Little Successes, Big Strides
The path for every student at Villa Maria is different and, of course, so is the outcome. Some students are able to be mainstreamed back into a regular school. Some eventually go on to live on their own in the community. Others move to group homes. “Some of our students never make it to what some people might consider the top but they make strides—little successes along the way,” said Carol. The staff at Villa Maria knows how big those little successes really are. “I often talk about the intensity of our children’s challenging behaviors,” said Sister Joyce. “I think the corollary to that is that when teachers, parents, and even students here see a glimmer of hope or a sliver of progress, the intensity of the joy we feel is astounding.”
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