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Skills to Grow: Miriam

Many parents know all too well the process of finding the right school for a child with learning differences. Every student is unique, so identifying an environment that will serve his or her needs can be challenging.

Founded in 1910, Miriam provides innovative solutions for area students with learning challenges. The nonprofit’s lower school, new high school and off-site educational services are aimed at helping students learn and develop to their full potential. Andy Thorp, executive director of the Miriam Foundation, says the programs are a real game-changer for students from about 80 area ZIP codes. “These are smart kids who may be struggling in areas like reading, math or social development,” he says. “They just learn a bit differently than others do.”

Miriam School in Webster Groves, which opened in 1956, serves about 100 prekindergarten through eighth-grade students with communication, learning, sensory, motor and attention challenges. The school’s small class sizes and individualized attention allow kids to develop academically, socially and emotionally, according to Thorp. “Our school population is growing, and this year we have our largest eighth grade class to date,” he notes.

Miriam Academy in Town & Country is the area’s first private, nonsectarian high school for students with learning differences. Opened in 2016, it also offers a personalized educational approach with special emphasis on learning challenges in language, reading, math, sensory skills and social development. Thorp says the academy currently serves about 35 freshmen and sophomores and will grow to include junior and senior classes, for a total of 120 students. “We have found there is a real demand for this kind of school,” he says. “We serve kids who would have a hard time learning in a typical high school environment with hundreds of other students. They need smaller classes, a school building that’s easier to navigate, and personal attention from teachers certified in special education.” The academy is temporarily housed in a church facility but is looking for a larger site to relocate, Thorp says.

The Miriam Learning Center was established in 2007. It provides after-school programs for about 1,000 students ages 3 to 18 who have learning challenges but are enrolled at other schools. They benefit from diagnostic testing and therapy, social skill instruction, tutoring and enrichment programs. “Some schools don’t have the budget to provide these services,” Thorp says. “We offer instruction at the schools each week, and students can stay in the environments where they are most comfortable. We are experts in the field of learning challenges, so many schools turn to us for these services. They find it very cost-effective to get help for their students in this way.”

Each Miriam student receives an IEP, or individualized education plan, detailing his or her personal learning needs. “It creates a good road map for us to help students get the instruction they need,” Thorp explains. “And when it’s time for them to transition back to a home or traditional school, we work with them to find the right environment. Parents often tell us that they’re constantly in ‘fight mode,’ struggling to get services for their children. But when they come here, they realize that we understand their kids, and they can relax.”

Miriam also offers occupational and speech therapy programs to help students grow and develop. “Kids who go to other private or public schools often have to travel quite far to reach necessary services,” Thorp says. “At Miriam, the therapists are right here in our classrooms. We have students on the autism spectrum, for example, who really thrive with these services available to them every day.”

Thorp says Miriam works hard to ensure that financial challenges don’t prevent families from receiving the help they need for their children. It provides more than $1.5 million in tuition assistance each year, and more than 60 percent of families receive it, he says. A sliding-scale tuition fee program also helps lessen the burden on lower-income families. And the organization operates a resale store in Brentwood, the Miriam Switching Post, which sells donated furniture and other household goods. It is run mostly by volunteers and brings in about $400,000 for the organization each year.

Miriam’s upcoming Storybook Ball fundraiser is another source of funding that helps expand its programs to serve more students, Thorp says. The gala takes place Feb. 3 in the Khorassan Ballroom at The Chase Park Plaza, and about 400 party guests are expected. Gala co-chairs are Peggy Ritter and Judi Scissors; honorary co-chairs are David and Thelma Steward and Michael and Noemi Neidorff. KMOX on-air personality Debbie Monterrey will take the stage as emcee, and The Fabulous Motown Revue will provide musical entertainment. Silent and live auctions will bring in additional funds for Miriam’s important work. “We only hold a gala every three to four years, so this event is particularly special for us,” Thorp notes.

Miriam’s ‘Learning to Succeed’ capital campaign is aimed at raising funds for a $4 million addition and renovation project at the middle school, plus $5 million for the development of the academy. This fall, the organization nearly had reached its $9 million goal with help from a variety of donors.

“No other area schools have taken this much of a leap to help kids with learning challenges,” Thorp says of Miriam’s unique programs and services. “We did a lot of research to be sure we understood the demand for this type of education, and now we are expanding in a way that’s gradual but smart.”

Miriam provides schools and educational services for students with learning differences, from pre-kindergarten through high school. Its 2018 Storybook Ball Gala will be he;d Feb. 3 at the Chase Park Plaza. Pictured on the cover with students, seated: Event co-chairs Peggy Ritter and Judi Scissors, board president Laurie Caro; standing: Emcee Debbie Monterrey. For more information, call 314.962.6059 or visit miriamstl.org.
Cover design by Allie Bronsky | Cover photo courtesy of Miriam

Pictured at top: Teacher Chris Holmes and students have fun with science experiments .
Photos courtesy of Miriam

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