By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published March 1, 2012
Sophia Academy, founded by a Catholic, Marie Corrigan, 13 years ago to meet the learning needs of one of her daughters, has affiliated with the Society of Mary and is seeking to attain designation as an independent Catholic school.
The school on Dresden Drive, Atlanta, opened in 1999 as the first Christian school here to serve children with learning differences. Accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) and the Southern Association of Independent Schools (SAIS) since 2006, it serves about 100 children in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. There are plans to add a ninth grade this fall and then add a grade a year to establish a high school.
The school serves children with mild to moderate learning disabilities who have an average to superior IQ. Class sizes are no larger than 12 students per teacher. A specialized program for teaching language arts and reading is used. Extra attention is given to teaching organization and study skills. Assistive technology is available. And recently, Sophia Academy also began accepting children without learning disabilities whose parents simply wanted them to have the small class sizes and specialized multisensory learning environment or who wanted to have all their children together in one school.
Corrigan said the possibility of sponsorship by the Marist religious community was suggested by a member of the Sophia Academy board of trustees recently as the school completed its reaccreditation process for SAIS-SACS. While three of her children went to Marist School, she said over the years she always kept her role as a school parent separate from her work as head of Sophia Academy.
When the contact with Marist was made, it quickly led to a positive response, she said.
“It was so fast after all those years,” Corrigan said.
Subsequently, a meeting was held with Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory to seek his approval for Sophia Academy to pursue attainment of the Catholic identity, to become a Marist-sponsored school and to be affiliated with the Society of Mary.
There is a process through the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Schools by which a school is evaluated in order to receive designation as an independent Catholic school. Steps a school must fulfill to receive the designation include a site visit, that the head of school is a Catholic in good standing, the religion curriculum is approved by the archdiocesan Offices of Catholic Schools and of Formation and Discipleship, the teachers of religion meet qualifications of both archdiocesan offices, and that the Catholic religion is taught daily and sacraments are offered on a regular basis.
Dr. Diane Starkovich, superintendent of Catholic schools, said independent Catholic schools are part of the strategic plan the department developed with The Catholic University of America and for that reason, the approval process has been developed.
A parishioner at the Cathedral of Christ the King, Corrigan said Sophia Academy being sponsored by the Society of Mary brings greater stability and a vital and deep faith and educational relationship.
“I believe now we can be a better school, just with everything Marist has to offer in terms of years of experience they can share with us. It is possible we may be able to share some resources. There is a world of possibilities we haven’t even explored. … I think of the sustainability of the school. When I am long gone will it still be there? I look at 110-plus years of Marist (in the city of Atlanta). It will keep us available to the students who need us.”
“My faith is everything. I love my Church and I love my faith,” she said. “To me it feels like bringing more of everything I know to be good and wonderful into our school. I just hope it will help us to serve that many more kids.”
Marist Father John Harhager, president of Marist School, said there was a real affinity between the mission of the religious community and what the specialized school has been doing for the last 13 years.
“Most Marists who are familiar with Sophia Academy—its origins and mission—have felt some strong affiliation to the school,” Father Harhager wrote in an email.
“Sophia Academy is a perfect blending of two key elements in the Society of Mary’s mission: education and service to those who are underserved. That it also provides another opportunity to develop a strong partnership with lay leaders makes it an even more attractive ministry to sponsor,” he wrote.
“Marists are pleased to be associated with a school which serves such an important need in the Atlanta area,” he said.
The sponsorship won’t affect the administration or day-to-day running of Sophia Academy. It will primarily offer the faith perspective of the Society of Mary, Father Harhager said, and a link to the other Marist educational ministries in the Atlanta area, which include Notre Dame Academy, Duluth, Marist School, Atlanta, and Marist’s Reach for Excellence program. Marists can also assist the school with liturgies, retreats and faith formation of faculty, he said.
“Sophia Academy is already a faith-based school. We believe the Marist way of expressing Christian discipleship offers a fresh approach to living those Gospel values which are needed to shape our young people and enable them to live fruitful lives in our sometimes challenging world,” he wrote.
The mission of Sophia Academy is the result of Corrigan’s journey to help her oldest daughter, Caroline, a twin, who was born prematurely weighing barely one pound. At 5 years old, she was still small and delayed in her motor and speech skills. She could not get into kindergarten at Christ the King School.
After searching for a Christian-based school for Caroline and trying several schools over the years, Corrigan, a nurse by profession, felt inspired through prayer to start a school. She was encouraged by her husband, and by her pastor, Msgr. Tom Kenny. She began Sophia Academy in rented space in 1999 with 11 students and two teachers, according to a history on the school’s website.
Since that time, the school has grown in enrollment, added middle school grades, kindergarten and pre-kindergarten, held a capital campaign to move from rented space into its own building, and added physical education and drama to its program. The school established a relationship with Georgia Tech’s Alternative Media Access Center for assistive technology, including audiovisual textbooks, in 2009.
In the reaccreditation process, those who evaluated the school “said we had opportunities that were rare for a school our size,” said Cathi Athaide, advancement director. “It has been (Marie Corrigan’s) vision that students who need more usually get less. … We have an award-winning drama program, sports.”
The reaccreditation report also said the school’s faith mission was “a priority,” Athaide said.
Corrigan recalled that her first hope in 1998 was that a school for those with learning challenges could be established within an existing Catholic school, but the idea did not mesh with archdiocesan plans at that time.
“Now 13 years later, we have served hundreds of students. I am glad I went ahead with it,” she said. “And I am so glad that Marist reached out to us.”
“It is like a halo reflection on all that we are doing. It is something for us to live up to, but I think we can,” she said.