St. Coletta is geared to students with cognitive disabilities – youngsters between ages 7 and 18 with autism, Down syndrome, or some other condition that has left them with a diminished capacity for learning. Prospective pupils are expected to have sufficient self-care skills to be independent. Mainstreaming is done occasionally.
“We look at the abilities (more than) the disabilities,” said Rachel Lustig, paraprofessional at St. Coletta and a St. Sebastian parishioner.
Since its establishment by the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi in 1956, St. Coletta has rented space at St. Sebastian Elementary School. St. Coletta’s pupils participate in a number of St. Sebastian School activities – weekly Masses, physical education instruction, lunches, library – but St. Coletta is nonsectarian and is not an archdiocesan institution.
St. Coletta became a part of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (a voucher school) last year. William Koehn, administrator and lead teacher at St. Coletta since 1991, noted that, of 58 Milwaukee schools applying to join the Choice program in 2009, only St. Coletta and one other school were accepted.
During a recent interview with Catholic Herald Parenting that also included his 13-student school’s other two staff members, Lustig and teacher Maureen Ronewicz, Koehn shared St. Coletta’s mission statement: “To provide an academic and social/functional curriculum to meet the needs of students with special needs that will prepare them to realize their full learning potential and become productive and contributing citizens as adults.”
Spiritual development is emphasized as well. In addition to the weekly Masses, at which St. Coletta youngsters sometimes read petitions and act as gift-bearers, there are nondenominational religion classes. The St. Coletta students sign the St. Sebastian School Covenant, promising to follow the virtues of honesty, kindness, peacemaking, respect and responsibility. St. Sebastian pastor Fr. Richard Aiken, whose brother attended St. Coletta many years ago, regularly visits the St. Coletta classrooms.
“We have more of a functional curriculum,” said Ronewicz, echoing the mission statement – a curriculum that emphasizes life skills including money management and food preparation.
“We want (the students) to feel good about themselves,” explained Lustig.
During the school year, students go often to the Urban Ecology Center at nearby Washington Park, in conjunction with the St. Coletta science curriculum. Music therapy and art therapy are also curriculum components, the latter through a partnership with Alverno College. Service projects include: helping at a food pantry, Christmas caroling at a group home for the elderly, and assembling Sunday bulletins for St. Sebastian.
Itinerant instructors employed by the Milwaukee Public Schools augment St. Coletta staff efforts by working one-on-one with students; the staff will keep the youngsters’ care providers (therapists, social workers, etc.) posted as to school progress.
New this school year is a second St. Coletta rented classroom, a middle/high school classroom in which Ronewicz teaches five adolescents. Her son and the other middle/high schoolers deal with “becoming an adult-type issues,” according to Jiardini. St. Coletta also provides word processing instruction, social skills training and field trips that support discovery and personal interests at the middle/high school level.
“Everything that we do (throughout the school) is purposeful from the minute they walk in at 7:30 in the morning,” noted Koehn.
Jiardini, whose son has been a St. Coletta student for about five years, added, “I cannot say enough good things. (The staff members) are just the most dedicated and wonderful people.”
She said the school offers “a loving and encouraging development (program, yet does) a great job of having limits for the kids.”
With the addition of the second classroom, St. Coletta’s enrollment has increased to 19, with six spots available. Parents of prospective pupils are welcome to visit St. Coletta when school is in session. An appointment to do so can be made by calling Koehn at (414) 453-1850. He suggested personnel at parochial schools having difficulty meeting the needs of certain students also contact him, as St. Coletta might provide a suitable alternative.
Parental involvement is encouraged at St. Coletta, even though the school’s board of directors has expanded beyond its pupils’ mothers and fathers. One board member is Franciscan Sr. Verna Kayser, who preceded Koehn as head of St. Coletta for 35 years. Volunteers are also welcome and if interested, should call the above number.