WAVERLY (SNR) - Like any other school, the halls of Villa Marie Home and School for Exceptional Children in Waverly feel strangely quiet during the summer months. There’s an air of expectancy as the Marian Sisters and other staff members prepare for the students’ arrival in just a handful of weeks.
While most of the students are returning to continue learning in the warm, home-like environment of Villa Marie School, there are always some who are new to Villa Marie’s unique style of education.
"We help the kids who fall through the cracks," said Sister Peggy Kucera, M.S., principal and teacher.
Each student comes to Villa Marie after struggling in traditional school settings. They face a range of challenges: some have learning disabilities. Some are on the Asperger/autism scale. Some have Down syndrome. Occasionally, there will be a student who had suffered a brain injury.
What they all have in common, however, is an Individual Education Plan (IEP) and the need for a bit more personal attention to help them achieve a high school diploma and job skills.
Sister Peggy and the other teachers are all certified in special education. The students are divided into three different classes according to ability, not age or grade level.
Since each student has his or her own IEP, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach in the classroom. The student-to-teacher ratio is considerably lower so that teachers have the time to focus on how a given student acquires knowledge.
In addition to regular academics, students are prepared in a variety of ways for life after graduation.
"We work on how to function in social situations, to live independently and to use their skills as productive employees," Sister Peggy explained.
They volunteer in the community, learn to maintain their appearance and personal health, and grow in social and emotional development. Every student learns job skills by participating in the daily work of running Villa Marie School and Home.
"They all are on dish duty, cleaning duty, recycling," said Sister Peggy.
Students also share in working in the school’s garden, taking care of the cats who live on the premises, and so on.
Each semester is enriched with special activities, like educational field trips and regular outings to a nearby stable to ride the horses. A local artist comes in to teach students who are ready to learn different fine arts techniques.
"We’re involved in the Special Olympics," added Sister Peggy. "Bowling, basketball and track."
Spiritual development is also part of the curriculum. The students experience the benefits of attending daily Mass – 17 different priests take turns coming in to celebrate Mass for the students and staff.
The children are also prepared to receive sacraments. Boys are trained as altar servers, and all the students perform a Christmas program every December that’s custom-written to showcase each child’s abilities.
It’s been nearly 50 years since Msgr. James Dawson founded Villa Marie, and there are alumni all over the diocese who are using the skills they learned there to lead happy, productive lives.
Sister Peggy recounted the achievements of some of her own former students. "One is working at Saint Elizabeth [Regional Medical Center] in the cafeteria. Some are working at grocery stores. One is working in a nursing home… some are living independently."
She hopes that parents and guardians of children with special needs will consider the advantages of Villa Marie.
The children must be between the ages of 8 and 16 and must have an existing IEP. They need to be able to learn somewhat independently, without a one-on-one paraprofessional.
There’s a three-step entry process that begins with a parent interview. Next comes a student visit, preferably during the school day so the child can experience the educational setting in action. Finally, there is the application itself, which includes tuition negotiation.
"No student will be turned away because of the family’s inability to pay, as in all the Catholic schools in the Diocese of Lincoln," assured Msgr. John Perkinton, superintendent of schools for the diocese.
He personally attends to the families who wish to send a child to Villa Marie School, sitting down with them to reach a mutually agreeable tuition rate.
Students can either board at the school from Monday morning until Friday after school, or if the trip to Waverly is manageable for the family twice a day, they can attend as day students.
Sister Peggy is eager to welcome prospective students and their parents or guardians to tour Villa Marie.
"Once they see it and see the kids in action, they all say the same thing: it’s like walking into home," she said.