In so many ways, St. Coletta of Greater Washington looks like any other school or playground where children gather. The DC charter school’s building, designed by architect Michael Graves, is colorful, even festive. It has classrooms and lockers, a cafeteria, an outdoor gym, and even a small indoor pool. In the halls and classrooms children and adults interact. There are smiles. There’s laughter. Some of the children walk and some ride on wheels; some talk, some don’t. But the wheels they ride upon aren’t strollers or bicycles or skateboards. They are wheelchairs. The children who don’t talk probably never will. The 285 students, some as young as three, are moderately to severely disabled, most since birth, and will be disabled for the rest of their lives. St. Coletta is there for them as advocate and friend and most of all not to pander but to teach. The message is: You are not invisible; you count.
The chief executive officer is Sharon Brady Raimo, a former school teacher and DC Public Schools assistant principal who has been with St. Coletta for 20 years, during which time it has moved from Clarendon to Alexandria, and then to 1901 Independence Avenue, Southeast, in view of RFK Stadium and a few blocks over from the DC Detention Center. That’s okay with Raimo. She’s not daunted by the neighborhood. She’s lived there for years and raised her children there. The DC location happened with the help of then-mayor Anthony Williams and then-city council member Sharon Ambrose, who believed the five acres of land would be best used as a safe harbor for severely disabled children. With the help of public and private money it opened in September 2006.
The school is year-round, the school day is, like other school days, from morning to afternoon. No one spends the night. The staff includes 27 teachers, plus therapists, nurses, and other personnel. The ratio is ten students for every teacher. Some students move about the school relatively independently; others—particularly those “on wheels”—need full-time assistance. Regardless, according to Raimo, “Everybody here is the same.” Their specific needs vary, but they all have needs.
Raimo says the majority of the students come from DC and “live somewhere in poverty,” but there also are children from Maryland and Virginia and as far away as Russia and China. It’s a grateful parent community, who “were not used to beautiful things for their children.” Raimo says that at public schools, teachers are too overwhelmed to give the disabled the focus they need, and that too often the disabled children get “put in the basement, or the trailer, or whatever,” and the attitude is “so long as we don’t have to look at you.”
The first St. Coletta was founded in Clarendon in 1959 by a couple whose child had Down syndrome. St. Coletta is the patron saint of orphans and special children. At first the school only had two students, and then as word spread it grew fast. When Raimo came onboard she actively recruited students. She also hunted around for a bigger building, and in 1995 she found it at 207 South Peyton Street in Alexandria. It was for sale, but nobody wanted to buy it, except for Raimo, who had $600,000 in raised funds plus another $2.5 million in industrial revenue bonds. The only problem: The building’s owner, the Trammell Crow Company, wouldn’t sell to her. “They said it would undervalue the land, that it was going to be this nonprofit for people with disabilities,” she says. Raimo did not take no for an answer.
“I went to see [Virginia congressman] Jim Moran first. He said, ‘Oh, you better see Joe [Kennedy]. I went to see Joe, and he made a few phone calls for me, and all of a sudden the people at Trammel Crow were my very best friends. I got the building, we moved in, and by the end of the first year we were up to 85 students,” she says. St. Coletta still owns the Alexandria facility, which is used for 120 adult students, ages 22 and up. There are another 90 adult students in Rockville in a “supported employment program” and 15 at Woodmont Weavers—which teaches students to weave fabrics—in Arlington. There are students as old as 70.
Raimo admits that as much as St. Coletta is for students it is also for parents. Some parents accept their child’s disability “right away,” while others have a harrowing time coming to terms with the facts and the future. “The idea is to make the family feel accepted and welcomed,” she says. “Sometimes they will balk. Even though it is obvious to us that the child needs us, it’s sometimes hard for the parents, especially parents with little children who see big children that have severe disabilities, because that is their future. It’s heartbreaking for them.”
She offers parent training—to teach the basics of caring for their children at home—but also emotional support. How does she help them get through it? “A little bit at a time. You can’t give them the reality buffet. That’s too much. You hand them the reality sandwich and have them take little bites at a time.”
In terms of space in the school, Raimo says, “We’ve always had a waiting list.” There is no private pay. The city provides $202 a day for children and $91 for adults. She says the youth funding is fair and the amount for adults should be the same. Private fundraising is essential; major sources include an annual gala and the school’s own glass-making operation, which St. Coletta hopes to turn into a full-fledged online business.
While we talked in Raimo’s office and toured the school, we wondered whether she is ever forced to turn away children because they are too disabled. “That very rarely happens,” she says. “We’ve had little guys who are 17 years old who are, like, this big [she spreads her hands only three feet apart] with failure to thrive, and they are in a chair where we can wheel them, but they need hand-over-hand assistance, and some of them even need help to regulate their own body temperature. But we can take them. We couldn’t take anybody who needed a bed all day. We’re not a hospital setting. It’s a school.”
And very much a school, with an art department, a music department, cooking classes, a gymnasium, and a thriving vegetable garden. “Everybody learns something,” Raimo says. Students who don’t talk, or who have similar impairments, use communications systems, including picture boards and books. “We have symbols for what they want—a drink, to go to the bathroom, or, if they want to tell you, ‘I’m sad,’ a sad face.” The small, heated indoor pool is for wheelchair-bound students, who receive physical therapy in it about once a week. “They love it,” she says.
We asked Raimo what it is like to work day in and day out with young people who are severely disabled. She responded from their point of view: “While we may not think as quickly or in the same way as other people, we feel the same way and our feelings are just as deep. When you look away from us, we feel hurt. When you come up and talk to us and give us your attention, we feel happy.”
Does she ever get discouraged by the work? No, she says. “It’s a joyful thing. These kids, if it’s in their heart it’s on their lips. There’s no filter. There’s always truth. They are great. I feel happy every day.”