School Spotlight: De LaSalle Academy strives to make each day great for students
By GEOFF FOX
Hanging on a wall near the front desk at De LaSalle Academy is a large paper rendering of “The Cat in the Hat’s” iconic red-and-white hat. Next to the hat, cut-out paper letters spell out the following words from Dr. Seuss:
“You’re off to a great day
“Today is your day
“Your mountain is waiting
“So get on your way”
Motivational quotes, colorful posters and unique artwork line many of the walls at the academy, a private, first- through 12th-grade school for students with special needs in Fort Myers, Florida.
Opening the school in 2012 was the personal mission of Principal Lori Riti, who previously presided over a smaller school location nearby. When she realized that a larger school with more land would better serve students, she turned to her board of directors.
The lifelong educator was as persuasive as she is passionate about special education.
“Some donors gave seven figures to get us started,” she said.
There were 60 students when De LaSalle Academy of Fort Myers opened in 2012 and enrollment has grown every year. This year, the school is home to nearly 160 students, 54 of whom are on the Gardiner Scholarship for students with certain special needs. The school also has one student on the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for lower-income families. Both scholarship programs are managed by Step Up For Students.
“Our teachers and therapists are on the front lines, giving kids what they need every day,” Riti said. “And the parents have made a choice to put their kids in a private school, and they are very engaged. We want to interact with parents to help their kids reach their goals, and they give us feedback. It’s a collaborative relationship.
“We have kids with learning disabilities, language impairments, anxiety or mild mood disorders. A lot of the kids present socially typical, which helps the other students feel comfortable.”
There are currently 12 homerooms with 12 to 14 students per class. The school has 18 classrooms in which students are educated based on ability. For example, a reading classroom may have students of varying ages and grade levels, but all share the same educational needs.
De LaSalle employs 20 teachers and five therapists, including a speech and language pathologist, a communications specialist an occupational therapist and two counselors. There are also four therapy dogs: Sammi, a Westie; a pug named Daisy; Belle, a golden retriever; and Tucker, a cocker spaniel who can devour a foot-long Subway sandwich in minutes (just ask Riti).
Of the Gardiner students, three have been diagnosed with Prader-Willi Syndrome, a complex genetic disorder that affects one in 12,000 to 15,000 people. The disorder can affect appetite, growth, metabolism and cognitive function, according to the Prader-Willi Syndrome Association.
The school caters to the unique abilities of its young scholars. Since the school opened in 2012, 24 students have graduated and 12 have gone onto college, including two students who were accepted at out-of-state schools; three other graduates have gone onto a technical school.
In teacher Andy Delgado’s technology lab, there is a computer at each seat and the walls are covered with posters and pictures that resonate with the students – and Delgado. Super Mario, Spider-Man, Pokemon, Batman and “The Legend of Zelda” are all represented.
Drawn on a white board is a dark green rendering of Sheldon J. Plankton, a character from “SpongeBob SquarePants.” Attributed to the character is a quote: “Knowledge is power!”
The colorful classroom seems to make academics more fun and accessible.
“No other school would allow me to be myself and express myself to my kids,” Delgado says.
Last year, he even started a socially interactive video game club that has been extremely popular. The school also has soccer, cheerleading, basketball, golf and bowling teams and offers thriving clubs for drama, yearbook, yoga and cooking.
Next door to Delgado’s room, Rebecca Detwiler teaches a high school-level physical science class. On this day, her 14 students are learning how to use a compass to find true north.
“Geographic north,” she explains, “is different than magnetic north.”
Detwiler also teaches American Sign Language.
In Detwiler’s class is Bryant Smith, an energetic 15-year-old 10th grader who was diagnosed on the autism spectrum and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). He previously attended a neighborhood school in Cape Coral, but has been at De LaSalle for three years.
“I like the smaller classes here,” Bryant says. “There are only about 11 students in each class and you can go outside and be with your friends.”
More importantly, Bryant says, the teachers and students at De LaSalle “know that I have all this energy and they understand it.”
“At my old school, they didn’t understand,” he says.
Bryant says he wants to someday work with computers, as he is good with his hands and technology. As he speaks, his peripheral vision catches a strange movement.
“Snake!” he says, his eyebrows raised and his left hand pointing down the sidewalk.
Sure enough, a non-venomous black racer has slithered out of some bushes and is relaxing on the warm concrete.
As Bryant tells his classmates about the black racer, students in Jessica Madera’s nearby science class are learning about bacteria cells.
On a wall in Madera’s classroom is a quote: “If we did all the things we were capable of doing we would literally astonish ourselves.”
One of Madera’s students is Alliya Dermer, a junior, who has attended De LaSalle since her freshman year. She previously attended a local high school, where she said she struggled academically and socially.
All of that changed at De LaSalle.
“I made a lot of friends here,” she says. “The girls here are like my sisters.”
One of the most enjoyable experiences she had at the school was last year when the Drama Club performed “Treasure Island.” Alliya, 17, played Billy Bones, a rum-swilling bully known to spontaneously burst into song.
A self-described “dog person,” she smiles at the memory.
“There are too many things I want to do,” she says. “I want to go to college and I love New York. I want to be an actress, but I also want to be a veterinarian.”
Geoff Fox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.