St. Coletta School – On the Edge of the Community and Central to It
by Larry Janezich
St. Coletta is a federal charter school – an education venue for intellectually disabled children and adults between 3 and 22 – the age when they are required to leave the education system. Eligibility is rigorous and determined in accordance with federal standards. Students must be diagnosed with intellectual disabilities, autism or multiple disabilities. The school’s annual operating budget for fiscal year 2018 is approximately $24 million.
St. Coletta is certified under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) as an individual education institution for special education kids and young adults to prepare them for transition to the community. The program at St. Coletta includes functional academics, skills of daily living, community-based instruction, adaptive physical education, music and art classes, computer skills and vocational training.
Their school year is 11 months during which students are prepared for an independent life. For some it is possible – for some it is more of a challenge. Students age 16 and over participate full-time in developing vocational skills and travel training – use of Metro and who to ask for help. For who can develop vocational skills, St. Coletta helps students “job sample” at outside venues – stores and performing arts centers, for example.
There are no classes as such – the school is organized into five ‘houses” based on age groups where students stay for several years, remaining with the same teachers and therapists. There is a therapist on staff for each house – other therapists come and go as needed. Houses are distinguished by color – the walls and ceiling of each house distinctive so students can recognize where they are. Each house has a washer and dryer and a teaching kitchen, and contains classrooms named after sports teams.
With a maximum enrollment of 285, 250 slots are reserved for students from DC – the balance is allocated to children and young adults from Maryland and Virginia. 20% of the students are in wheelchairs, 50% are nonverbal, and 75% qualify for the free lunch program.
At St. Coletta school, there are four nurses on staff: many students have medical issues, some are on medication and some could not come to school without a nurse being there. The employee student ratio is two to 1 – for the smaller kids, it’s one to one.
There are a total of 350 employees at the school in DC and the adult facilities in Maryland and Virginia. This includes 142 para professionals and 25 teachers – the rest are nurses, therapists, social workers and administrative personnel.
Under IDEA, schools must provide disabled children with free special education programs to meet their needs as a condition for receiving federal funds. But this federal support typically amounts to less than 20% of the cost, and local school districts come up with most of the rest in the form of tuition. St. Coletta receives some 5% of their funding from Medicaid because most of the students are eligible for therapies. The school also receives support from foundations, corporations and individuals to meet operating expenses in special programs, including their Day Habilitation Programs for adults at two facilities in Rockville and Alexandria.
Capitol Hill Corner visited some of the special features of St. Coletta.
In the horticultural garden, students grow, pick, and eat produce including apples, herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers, rhubarb, kale, corn and figs. The gymnasium features a full size basketball court and is also used by outside groups, including the Special Olympics, recreation groups, and other schools. DC United has used it for soccer clinic during the winter. There is a playground for the physically handicapped and art and music studios.
One of the major efforts to help students at St. Coletta and adults at the Day Center programs adapt for community life and gain experience are the real-life jobs the school provides through work in a studio where students are trained and adults are paid to make “Coletta Collections” – handcrafted items including jewelry, tableware and table linens and accessories. The program has been very successful, and the school is looking for more space to expand it. Products are sold on-line and by St. Coletta’s “Fashion Truck” which drives to Alexandria once a week to provide an outlet for the products. The width of the truck prohibits its being parked on public streets in DC – on occasion the truck has parked in the lot at Union Market. See here: https://www.colettacollections.com/
St. Coletta was founded in 1959 in Alexandria as a private school. Sharon Raimo, teacher, and advocate became principal in 1993. Raimo, now the schools CEO, moved the school to DC in 2006, with the help of then-Councilmember Sharon Ambrose who was instrumental in obtaining the building site on Reservation 13. A congressional earmark through the efforts of a supporting member of Congress provided one-third of the $36 million building cost. Another $6 million came from donations and the balance – $16 million – was financed commercially – Raimo says of the funding, “Not one penny of city money. We couldn’t ask for it. That was the deal.”
Rebecca Hill, Chief Development Officer, says St. Coletta’s loves to give tours. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org