School specializing in special needs students is exploding in enrollment

FOX Files

CHESTERFIELD, Mo. – A west St. Louis County academy is exploding in enrollment because of a unique teaching model that you won’t find anywhere else in the St. Louis area.

The Academy of St. Louis on Kehrs Mill in Chesterfield is a school that covers kindergarten through graduation. It’s in-person and it specializes in children with learning challenges.

Sixth-grader Parker Mossman has a special way of calming down. He often calms down outside, under supervision, by throwing reusable water balloons against a wall.

“Now how do you feel,” his teacher asked. He responded saying he was ready to return to the classroom.

Fifth-grader Nathan Roeslein said, “I had an old school and I heard it’s just virtual.”

Roeslein, who was wearing headphones to drown out background noise, said he was excited to take his lesson plan outside.

“We get out to get fresh air,” he said. “We’re going to Castlewood.”

Terri O’Daniel co-founded the Academy of St. Louis 17 years ago. She wanted something better for students with disabilities.

“A lot of our students also have a lot of anxiety. To sit in a classroom all day, it’s just not healthy for them,” she said. “Our transition program is very personalized. Once a student starts high school we start working with them in a very, very organized precise manner. “We ask them, ‘What would you like to do when you graduate?’”

High schooler J.T. Starck is enrolled in the transition program. He hopes to become a firefighter, paramedic, or 911 dispatcher one day.

“It’s helping me get to my point where I’m starting my EMT at the school and I’ll finish it in college,” he said. So, they’re helping me get one step ahead. t’s about keeping one step ahead so you don’t fail.”

O’Daniel was listening to Starck and added, “I love it because he’s been with us for eight years and we have worked with him to try to support him in his goals. He’s following in his father’s footsteps.”

The school specializes in small class sizes of six to eight students in each class. It’s doubled in size since last year.

“I opened up another classroom,” O’Daniel said.

She wants to keep up with demand in order to give students with disabilities their best chance.

O’Daniel says people with disabilities make up the nation’s largest minority group and the highest level of unemployment with only about 19 percent of working-age adults employed.  She says her school’s transition program has led to 85 percent of the academy’s high school graduates being employed either full or part-time.

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