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Archives Grant helps St. Agnes close educational gaps

Nov. 3, 2021

By Darcy Fargo

LAKE PLACID – St. Agnes School is closing a gap in services to its students in need of additional assistance with help from the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation.

“(Superintendent of Schools) Sister Ellen Rose (Coughlin) approached the principals and let us know about the opportunity with the Cabrini Foundation,” said Catherine Bemis, principal at St. Agnes School. “She really challenged us to think about what would complete our schools and allow us to reach that dream – that thing we wanted to do but couldn’t, usually for financial reasons. It’s long been a dream of ours to provide gap services. It’s something we had been working toward very slowly over the last five years. We wanted to provide specialized services to students who would benefit from them, services like speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, or visits with a counselor or psychologist. It also includes extension services like advanced math options, enrichment opportunities in literacy and numeracy.”

St. Agnes School secured a Mother Cabrini Health Foundation grant that allows the school to provide those gap services, services both public and private schools typically struggle to provide.

State education standards are used to determine when a student qualifies for specialized services. Those standards require that a child be diagnosed with a disability and/or hit specific criteria – they have to be far enough behind – to qualify for academic intervention services, speech therapy, occupational therapy or physical therapy.

“Only the neediest students receive specialized services,” Bemis said. “It’s been proven time and time again: the younger you add specialized services, the easier it is to close gaps or prevent them from even forming. It allows us to catch and address needs before they become significant, and it prevents some students from falling through the cracks.”

Providing gap services also allows the school to provide services to students who are awaiting further evaluations and potential diagnoses that would qualify them for special education services.

With the grant funding provided, St. Agnes School has been able to contract with specialized service providers. Those providers work with the school’s classes to aid all students. Doing so also allows them to identify students who may need additional one-on-one instruction.

“We had been exploring teletherapy options even before the pandemic,” Bemis said. “It’s not ideal in early-education settings, but it would’ve been better than nothing. Fortunately, we’ve been incredibly blessed to find an amazing team willing to work with us, and we have not experienced a shortage as we anticipated we might. We have a number of different therapists, including some who were working with us already providing services to students with (special educations services). We had a couple occupational therapists move into the area, and one was willing to do an intervention program for occupational therapy and fine motor skills. That provider goes into every classroom every week and works on age-appropriate skills. It might be teaching scissor skills and pencil grip with the youngest students and more complex fine motor skills with older students. Through that, students in need of additional support can be identified.”

The Cabrini Foundation grant is also allowing St. Agnes School to train its staff to provide specialized services.

“One of our main concerns was if we secured the grant, would we be able to find service providers in the area,” noted Bemis. “To address that, we included a number of professional development opportunities that would allow us to access expertise and build the skills we have here in-house. We wanted our teachers to be able to continue the work in the absence of the specialized care.”

The grant also funded the creation of a “sensory room,” a space for service providers to work with students and for students to “self-regulate when overstimulated.”

“We have spaces where services can be delivered – table and chairs for speech therapy and occupational therapy, open spaces for physical therapy and gross motor activities,” said Bemis. “And there’s a ‘cozy corner’ with a number of sensory items – bubble tubes, weighted blankets, fiber optic lighting, soft seating. It’s a place where students can go to self-regulate when they’re over stimulated or feeling overwhelmed.”

Creating the space allowed the involved therapy providers to choose the equipment, tools and toys that would best allow them to help students.

“It’s been great,” said Trish Friedlander, a speech language pathologist working with St. Agnes School. “As a private speech pathologist, I’ve never had anyone ask what materials I’d like to use or give me the opportunity to order materials I wanted like that.”

More than that, though, Friedlander said she’s appreciating the opportunity to help students in need who might otherwise not qualify for services.

“We’re seeing tons of progression, and the school year just started,” she said. “The key is that kids who wouldn’t get services are getting services, and they’re improving their communications skills in and out of the classroom.”

That ability to aid students has been especially instrumental given the current needs, Bemis said.

“We thought this grant would be meaningful and impactful when we initially wrote the application before the pandemic started,” she said. “Now, seeing it in action during this pandemic fallout, it’s so much more than we thought it would be. We’re able to do more than we thought and help more kids.”

Ultimately, that helps the school meet its educational goals.

“Our education philosophy here at St. Agnes is to provide individualized programs and a curriculum that allows students to work at their own level and be supported,” Bemis said. “This really goes with that.”



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