By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published January 12, 2017
DULUTH—A merger between Sophia Academy in Atlanta and Notre Dame Academy in Duluth was announced Jan. 4 by the boards of trustees of both Marist schools. It will take place in August. The Atlanta school will move to the Notre Dame campus and become a new division of that academy.
In announcing the merger, leaders said the outcome will be unique in the metro Atlanta area as the only independent Catholic school with a dedicated program for children, in preschool through high school, with a wide range of learning abilities.
“One of the biggest positives is that families can stay together,” said Debra Orr, head of school of Notre Dame Academy.
Orr said she knows of a family with four children, each attending different schools to best meet educational needs.
Founded in 1999, Sophia Academy is a Marist school for children with learning differences. Sophia Academy serves students in kindergarten through 12th grade.
“We’re just so thrilled for our kids,” said Trish Coughlin, advancement director for Sophia Academy. The Dresden Drive school, which is for sale, serves 52 children.
Notre Dame Academy, formed in 2005, is a Marist and International Baccalaureate World School. The school has 576 students in four divisions: early years (pre-K2 through kindergarten), lower school (grades one-five), middle school (grades six-eight) and upper school (grades nine and 10), and is enrolling students through 11th grade for the 2017-18 school year.
The new fifth division created by the merger will be named the Father Colin School for the founder of the Society of Mary, Father Jean-Claude Colin. Both academies operate under the Society of Mary, as does Marist School in Atlanta.
“The Father Colin School will embrace the unique gifts of children with learning differences and will embody the spirit of the mission of the Society of Mary, which strives to be humble, loving, compassionate, open, inclusive and merciful,” said Marist Father John Harhager, president of Marist School, chairman of the Sophia Academy board of trustees and board member at Notre Dame Academy.
“With us all being Society of Mary, we’ve worked so closely with them,” said Coughlin. “It kind of synergistically happened.”
The Father Colin School principal will be Beth Bourneuf, currently a learning specialist on the staff of Notre Dame Academy. Both Bourneuf and Orr have extensive experience in special education.
Orr worked at St. Pius X High School in Atlanta for more than 20 years, assisting children with learning differences to prepare for college. She has also written curriculum for programs addressing learning differences.
“It’s a natural fit for me. This is something I’m really comfortable with,” said Orr.
The new principal has 24 years of special education experience in public and private settings, including 14 years of direct instruction and a decade spent as an administrator of special education programs in Forsyth County schools. She is trained in SIM Learning Strategies, a specialized approach to math, writing and reading that helps students understand information and solve problems. Bourneuf is also trained in social skills interventions through The Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta, Social Thinking, and the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, Maryland.
She was actively involved in Special Olympics in Forsyth County as well as in a peer facilitator program for typical learners to form relationships with children in special education.
Orr said the Notre Dame student body represents many different nations, but this merger brings more “authentic diversity” to the school.
Some classes for Father Colin students will be combined with traditional classrooms for blended learning and others will be separate.
Orr said the merger news was well received by parents.
“Everyone knows someone who has struggled with this,” said Orr about the difficulty in finding the right place for children with learning needs.
“What a positive thing this is for the archdiocese,” she said.
Orr added the merger makes fiscal sense in having both operations under one umbrella.
“I think the timing is right for this,” she said.
The International Baccalaureate program has resources and training the Father Colin School staff may draw upon.
“They have a whole section on inclusive education,” said Orr. “The beauty of doing this is that it strengthens the whole school.”
Notre Dame will also work with the Chicago-based Loyola University Center for Inclusive Catholic Education to establish an inclusive teaching model.
Coughlin said every effort will be made for all teachers and staff from Sophia to make the transition if desired. Orr is confident this will be possible and said some of her current teachers have already expressed interest in working with Father Colin students. The classroom space at Notre Dame for the additional students has already been designated.
Coughlin believes the merger will set a great example for other programs. “It starts the process. It’s really exciting for Catholic families and other Christian families,” she said.
She believes the IB model and its resources will be invaluable for Father Colin students.
“We really need to prepare them for the world out there,” said Coughlin.
“We are honored to partner with the administration, board and families of Sophia Academy in this important endeavor,” said Orr.