School for autistic children opens with help of Olin students

When the Archdiocese of St. Louis recognized a need within its community for giving children with certain disabilities a better education, it turned to the University for a solution.

After extensive research, four University students detailed a plan for a hallmark school in west St. Louis County catering to children with autism and related disorders.

The St. Gemma Program for Children with Autism and Developmental Disabilities at the St. Gemma Center on the grounds of the Passionist Nuns Monastery, 15712 Clayton Road, opened for classes Sept. 5.

The project came about through the Taylor Community Consulting Program. Founded at the Olin Business School, the program strives to serve the St. Louis community by helping local communities, children in need, and a wide variety of charitable organizations, causes and events operate more effectively.

Olin students formed teams of two to four members and put their professional expertise to practical use serving as temporary consultants for local not-for-profits.

On this project, Olin students Luy Chen, (BSBA ’07), John Meyer (MBA ’07) and Chris Hong (BSBA ’08, master’s in finance ’08) and Danielle van Dyk, a senior in psychology in Arts & Sciences, received some input from the archdiocese. In late spring, the students gave their research to archdiocese representatives, and the proposal was approved.

“We started out determining the feasibility of establishing a special-needs school in the Catholic Archdiocese for students with autism and those who would not fit in in a normal educational setting,” Hong said.

From that came the inclusion of students with other special needs closely related to autism, including those with Asperger’s Syndrome and Rett’s Disorder.

The group decided to distribute two surveys, the first of which would determine if there was an interest in the perceived market.

“The initial survey was to make sure the second, mass-market survey would meet all of the needs of the children,” Meyer said. “We tailored it so it would meet the needs of the population and be something the population would respond to.”

The students developed a second survey that contained more precise questions with the help of Leonard Green, Ph.D., professor of psychology in Arts & Sciences. The more detailed survey addressed the topics of where the school should be located, what sorts of programming should be included, how big the school should be physically, how many children should be enrolled and what the various costs would be.

“The students were just exceptional,” said Janet Nemec, director of the Archdiocese’s Department of Special Education. “They came to our office and learned about the program here, then developed a feasibility study, which to my surprise showed quite an interest in a religious-based program for children with autism.

“Because of (the students’) thoroughness, it made it clear that there was real potential for such a program.”

Hong publicized the survey through the St. Louis Review (the weekly newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Louis), and the survey was available online. In the end, about 90 people responded — not all Catholic — and the group had the base information with which to start. The results showed that the best location for the school — to be named St. Gemma, after the patron saint of students and pharmacists — should be West County. For now, the school will feature two classrooms.

“We’re looking at five children in a classroom,” Chen said. “That’s one of the challenges we faced in terms of class size. It’s really difficult for a teacher to manage more than five children with autism, so that’s one of the challenges we face. Five is the target number, and eight is the maximum number of students a teacher could have.”

The tuition stands at $15,000 per child. Four children have been admitted. And with three adults in each classroom — a special education teacher, a speech language therapist and a teacher’s aide — the ratio is designed to give the children the most benefit.

“It’s not just for kids with a ‘delay,'” Chen said. “There are serious language impairments and communication impairments. The kids often need an occupational therapist, a language specialist, and there’s a special kind of therapy called applied behavior analysis. Some families will hire a therapist for 30 hours a week, so it can really add up.”

“The price tag includes the donation of a building and the use of existing staff,” Meyer said. “The Catholic Church was working with children with special needs before the Mainstreaming Act, when special schools were set up.

(The Mainstreaming Act was first passed in 1975, saying that disabled children had to attend regular classes for either part or all of the school day. In 1986, the law was revised so that all severely handicapped babies, toddlers and children from ages 3-5 could have the opportunity to attend public school. One more revision, which benefited adolescents came in 1990).

“I’m as surprised as anybody that this has worked,” Nemec said. “Had it not been for their thoroughness, I don’t think we’d have taken the plunge.

“They didn’t have any background in our mission, and they took the time to explore and learn about us. They are really exceptional young people and have done a great job, and they aren’t even in the business world yet!”

The Taylor Community Consulting Program was endowed by the employees of Enterprise Rent-A-Car in honor of company founder Jack Taylor, his son, Andy, and daughter, Jo Ann Taylor Kindle.