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A School Growing Alongside Its Students: The Joseph Sams School

In thirty years, The Joseph Sams School (JSS) has grown from an early intervention preschool program, with one instructor, two paraprofessionals, and a handful of toddlers, to a full cradle-to-career suite of academic, life-skills, extracurricular, and vocational-training programs serving more than a hundred children and young adults a year. Even more remarkable are the results: the school’s first cohorts, facing a range of challenges from autism to Down syndrome to speech disorders, are today active and independent members of their communities.

 

Started by three determined Fayette and Henry County families frustrated by the available education options for their young children with special needs, JSS is the only school of its kind in the state: serving students with all kinds of special needs, from birth to age 22, with a full-day, full-curriculum program.

“What makes us unique is the wide range of ages and abilities that our students represent,” said Executive Director Amy Murray. “Many schools serving students with special needs specialize in one thing—learning disorders, autism. We prepour students with any kind of special need for success in whatever comes next.”

“What makes us unique is the wide range of ages and abilities that our students represent. Many schools serving students with special needs specialize in one thing—learning disorders, autism. We prepour students with any kind of special need for success in whatever comes next.”

What “comes next” covers a lot of ground: students could be transitioning into a general education classroom, graduating from the Lower School to the Upper School, or entering adulthood. In every case, JSS provides them with the functional and adaptive skills to thrive. In fact, one of the students from the very first class, Michael Crofton, works one day a week at the school as a team assistant (He also, Murray notes, works another job, at a local pizzeria, and volunteers at an elementary school).

The Joseph Sams School has grown alongside that first class, adding not just additional grades but additional skill sets. “We’ve grown based on need,” said Murray. “Speech therapy has been in place from the start—speaking is the top answer when families come to us and I ask what they want most for their children. But walking is a close second. So we added the MOVE® (Mobility Opportunities Via Education) program, which provides assistance for sitting, walking, and transitioning through the natural course of a student’s day.” They’ve also added a Fine Arts department, including therapeutic music and art, for all grades.

Growth and Development

The lessons of the school’s rapid, multi-directional growth were recently crystallized in a period of strategic planning, restructuring, and succession that began in 2008, when co-founder and ED Marie Sams made the deliberate decision to start planning for the school’s next stage. The transition of leadership was just completed in January of 2013, when current ED Murray officially took the reigns of a more thoroughly developed organization, with an expanded board of directors and a more robust administrative team—including two principals, one for the Lower School and one for the Upper School, where there used to be one.

Like many members of The Joseph Sams School staff, Murray rose through the organization to her current position. New to the area after working as a public school teacher for seven years, Murray began at JSS as a “parapro,” assisting teachers in classrooms, went on to teach in the Primary Program, and spent two and half years as principal before being asked to take on the ED position. The school’s current principals, Murray said, began even more humbly: “They came to us years ago as volunteers. And then, as paraprofessionals, they worked to obtain their teaching degrees, and then they worked as lead teachers and obtained Masters. So they understand, just as I have, each of the different roles and capacities—which lends itself to understanding who we are as an organization.”

Who they are, Murray notes, is a direct result of the training opportunities that JSS provides for its staff, be it ongoing support in obtaining a degree, trips to national conferences like the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association’s, or skills-building courses at GCN. Keeping staff trained in the latest teaching methods is essential to their mission: delivering the highest quality academic and life-skills curriculum possible.

“We need to be sure that we are providing the latest evidence-based practices, the cutting edge,” said Murray. “If we want to be recognized as a center of excellence, as the school that families with special needs seek, we’ve got to be forward-thinking. Our students have such a wide range of abilities and needs that it requires thinking outside the box, and having many resources.”

Training is one of those resources, but technology has played an increasingly valuable role; Murray points to a recent campaign funding the purchase of iPads for their students as an enormous success: “Technology is redefining what is possible for a wide range of individuals with disabilities. For children with autism and other communication disorders, technology provides a means to communicate, participate in class, and interact with their peers.”

“If we want to be recognized as a center of excellence, as the school that families with special needs seek, we’ve got to be forward-thinking."

Technology has also allowed JSS to take every student’s Individual Educational Plan—what Murray calls “the cornerstone of each child’s education”—online, where it can be accessed and tracked at will by a student’s teachers, therapists, and parents.

Expanding the Reserve, Expanding Access

Another challenge facing JSS is providing access for students who need their services but don’t have the funds for tuition or fees. To open up their programs to lower-income families, it was necessary for JSS to expand its scholarship program, which became part of a multi-faceted plan to get their finances in order. “A foundation we’ve worked with for many years challenged us to revamp our financial and investment policies to have a greater return,” said Murray. The results have grown their operational fund and built up their scholarship endowment.

“The scholarship endowment has been a multi-layered program,” said Murray. “Through the years The Goizueta Foundation has graciously donated to JSS to establish a scholarship endowment. Another layer is the Circle of Hope giving society—you become a member by donating a thousand dollars for a scholarship. That has grown tremendously.” The endowment is also supported by private foundations, as well as smaller-sum donors and event revenues, which JSS has also grown.

From Early Years to All Years

When JSS was first established in 1984, serving just six students, all under the age of 5, it was called The Early Years. Before long, the organization had outgrown both its original space and its original name; when they moved to their current location in the late 1990s, the Board elected to rename it in memory of one of the original students (the son of former ED Marie Sams), and it became The Joseph Sams School.

Today, the school is prepared to serve more than a hundred students a year and cultivate a new generation of donors, volunteers, and professionals through new events and outreach programs. The Southern Flair party has been planned as a younger-skewing alternative to their largest fundraiser, the Annual Dinner, Dance and Auction, and an academic internship program brings in students from local public high schools to get a better understanding of special education. The Joseph Sams School also has student-teaching partnerships with several universities, including Mercer College and the University of Georgia.

“We look for any way we can help individuals better understand the special needs community, and helping people pursue a degree, or a career, has been a great way to do it,” said Murray. “We plan to keep expanding that program as well.”

For more information on The Joseph Sams School, visit their website.

Marc Schultz is contributing editor at the Georgia Center for Nonprofits.

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