Author Archives: Foundation

April 18, 2019


Miriam plans $5 million in improvements to former B’nai El Site
St. Louis, Mo – Miriam announced today that the City of Frontenac has unanimously approved a conditional use permit to allow Miriam Academy to locate at 11411 North Forth Drive. Miriam Academy is a small, private high school serving students who learn differently. Plans call for Miriam Academy to be located in the former B’nai El Congregation building upon completion of $5 million in extensive renovations. Miriam is awaiting zoning approval from the Village of Westwood as the property resides in both municipalities.

Miriam Academy opened with its inaugural class in 2016 and today serves 55 high school students at its current location in Town & Country. The Academy provides a learning environment designed to support the education, development and college and career readiness needs of high school students with unique learning needs. The new location would allow Miriam Academy to serve approximately 100 students.

“Miriam Academy addresses an unmet need in the St. Louis region for high school students with learning challenges,” said Miriam’s Executive Director Andrew Thorp. “Revitalizing the former B’nai El structure will allow us to create the perfect learning environment where more students can excel,” he said. “This property represents an ideal site for Miriam Academy to serve its mission to educate, provide hope and inspire unique learners by building confidence and a foundation for success,” Thorp said.

“We wish to thank the City of Frontenac for approving our plans and are hopeful that the Village of Westwood will also provide zoning approval to repurpose the B’nai El property to serve even more students and their families in the community,” Thorp said. The project comes before the Village of Westwood Trustees for consideration on April 23 at 5pm at Frontenac City Hall.

Miriam has a contract with Congregation Shaare Emeth to purchase the B’nai El property. Mike Lefton, President of Shaare Emeth stated, “As current owners of the B’nai El property, Shaare Emeth is pleased to support the mission of Miriam Academy to educate high school students with learning challenges. This is a great use of the existing property and we support the renovation of the building that will preserve the legacy of B’nai El.”

Miriam’s redevelopment of the property would occur within the footprint of the existing building. Improvements include converting half of the large parking lot to greenspace and enhancing landscaping including trees for screening and a fence around the perimeter of the property.

The majority of work in the interior will create a dramatically improved facility designed for longterm viability. In addition, a traffic study was completed by CBB traffic engineers and determined that traffic related to the operation of Miriam Academy would minimally impact existing traffic flow. No field lights will be added. School hours are from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm.

Through three comprehensive programs, Miriam School, Miriam Academy and Miriam Learning Center, Miriam currently serves more than 1,200 students with learning differences each year. Miriam started as an elementary school more than 60 years ago, added a middle school in 2002, and today Miriam School serves 96 students in grades Pre-K-8 with a variety of learning challenges. Miriam Learning Center serves over 1,000 students in the community through after school programs and outreach partnerships with over 60 charter and private schools. Miriam Switching Post is a resale store in Brentwood with all proceeds benefiting the students and programs of Miriam.


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Contact: Laurie Burstein
Telephone: (314) 962-6059

I have always loved English. Everything about it has always made me happy: how you can express yourself in writing, how every person has a different interpretation of the same piece, or how various authors can turn scratches on a page into words that can bring you to tears or make you question your entire existence. I have always not only enjoyed but excelled in it. Then, I went to high school. I was absolutely miserable. The teachers were conditioned to teach and not to help the students learn. I was afraid to ask questions, participate in class, or even talk to people. My grades started to fall. I developed school anxiety and depression. I lost my creative voice.

Then, my family and I discovered Miriam Academy. I decided to visit and see if it would be a good place for me. When I walked in, I admit, I was kind of scared. I was so used to the normal desk-and-chair learning that I never expected to see people hopping around in body socks or sliding down the halls on scooters. Yet, I had a special feeling about Miriam and knew this was the school I wanted to attend.

When I started at Miriam, I was still dealing with that hopeless feeling that I had developed at my previous school. I forced a smile on my face every day and trudged through my classes. It was still a struggle. It’s hard to see the light when your fire has been put out.

Slowly but steadily, I didn’t have to force a smile. I excelled in all of my classes. I made wonderful friends that accepted me for me. My fire was reignited. Now, I’m able to write better than ever, even about sensitive topics like this. I hope to be a novelist one day and have grown the confidence to truly believe that I can do it. Miriam has not only been a blessing in my life, but it has also made an impact on how I will live my life in the future.

-Submitted by Taylor Defusco, Miriam Academy student

I still remember the initial nervousness I felt when my then five-year-old son Xavier attended a two-day trial session in Miss Angie’s class at Miriam School. Would he react well to the other children? Would he be able to communicate effectively with his teacher and the therapists at Miriam? Would he develop the strong friendships that every parent hopes for their children? The answer to all of these questions eventually became yes!

Though Xavier was a happy and affectionate child, he had difficulty communicating verbally. He also had problems dealing with his emotions and with normal auditory processing. My wife Candice and I eventually sought out a neurologist after several developmental milestones were missed. In the summer of 2010, Xavier was diagnosed with autism.

After careful consideration, we made the decision to send Xavier to Miriam School and he began in the fall of 2014. We felt that Miriam had the right structure in place to meet all of his needs, whether academic, social, sensory, or therapeutic on a daily basis.

Today Xavier is a happy, confident 10-year-old boy who enjoys playing with the friends he has made at Miriam. He is able to effectively express his feelings verbally to his teachers and friends. A big factor in Xavier’s success is the small class size and attention he gets at Miriam. The teachers have the privilege to devote more individual time to each student and can appropriately assess and meet the needs that will make each student successful.

One of our son’s favorite things at Miriam is the yearly talent show. Last year, Xavier participated in the magic show. It’s incredibly exciting to see your child have confidence and watch that self-assurance translate into other areas of his life. Miriam is really a special place because there is a priority placed on the amount of time spent with each student whether in the classroom, in therapy, or in the many activities that occur during the day. Miriam is more than just a school: it is a place where children can thrive in an atmosphere that embraces different ways of learning while nurturing each student.

-Submitted by Mark Kadlec, Miriam School Parent

Alex has always had an interest in flying.  When he was young, our son would fly simulations on his computer or play flying video games, always with the hope of flying for real someday. Two years ago, he took a discovery flight through the Young Eagles program where a pilot will take a young prospective student pilot for a 30-minute introductory flight.  After that, Alex was hooked.   Because of the large amount of reading and studying it takes to become a pilot, we were unsure if he would be able to handle this challenge.

But for Alex this school year was bringing a new school.  After attending Miriam Academy for a few months, it was clear: new school, new confidence, new maturity and it was the right time to start flying.  The happy, fun-loving kid that we once knew was back!  His excitement and love of flying helps him tackle the studying and reading that comes along with getting a pilot’s license. 

As a parent, I have watched Alex change since attending Miriam Academy.  The teachers and staff have been incredible.  They are available to help and answer questions at all times for students and parents.  Everyone at the Academy knows the students as individuals and works with them as individuals.     

Alex actually wants to go to school every day!  His favorite part about the Academy is all of the new friends he has made, along with the help and encouragement of his teachers.  He also loves the after school clubs, with the bowling and cooking clubs as his favorites. 

Alex has begun his training at Ideal Aviation in Cahokia, Illinois.  He has ground lessons and flight lessons twice a week.  His instructor is helping build his confidence and growing his passion for flying.  This is a long process and takes a lot of dedication, but with his new-found confidence, Alex is ready to tackle this endeavor. 

We all want to see our children succeed.  Now I believe Alex has a school, Miriam Academy, that will help him succeed.

-Submitted by Krista Ryffel

Our Miriam story is about finding the right place at the right time. Miriam School was that special place where my daughter Beth felt welcome right away and found the perfect fit to grow academically and socially. Now a senior in high school, we know that Miriam gave her the foundation to be successful as she prepares to graduate this year and move on to college.

The story begins when Beth was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD in first grade while attending a public school. Her father and I learned as much as we could about learning disabilities and decided that a smaller school dedicated to students with learning differences would work best for Beth.

She attended another school for the next four years, but she just wasn’t happy socially. When the time came to have her diagnosis renewed, it was disappointing to see that she had not progressed
to the extent we and her doctor expected. Her doctor then recommended Miriam School and she entered in sixth grade.

I could see almost immediately that she was happier at Miriam. Beth was getting a lot more personal attention and had much closer relationships with the teachers. Beth really thrived in Miriam’s learning environment, plus she had more friends and even participated in student council.

Beth is a child whose disabilities are not as significant as some others. That was one of the great things about Miriam – they can give that amazing individual experience to children with many levels of need. Being at Miriam really gave Beth a complete comfort of being with people of all different abilities. She learned acceptance of others which will serve her throughout her life.

After attending Miriam for three years, Beth was able to enter high school and fully participate in all classes with no special accommodations. She currently is a senior at Grand Center Arts Academy with a 3.9 GPA and is 6th in her class.

I honestly believe that without the social and academic skills Beth received at Miriam, she would not be doing as well as she is today. Beth learned organization and study habits at Miriam, plus she learned how to advocate for herself when needed with teachers and others. She really learned how
her challenges affect her and what to do to make her own accommodations.

Beth loved how the teachers at Miriam really got to know and understand her. She also developed a love of both science and theater at Miriam. Some of her favorite memories include the science experiments and also the organic garden.

Beth is now applying to a variety of universities and is already accepted into a number of programs. She is excited about her future and this would not have been possible without the unbelievable education foundation given to her by Miriam and its incredible teachers and staff.

–Submitted by Julie Stapf, Miriam School alumni parent

Miriam Academy has changed my life in so many ways. Since coming here two years ago as a freshman, I am now more open and friendly. The way I talk to others, and even to myself, has improved greatly. For me the best part about the Academy is not only the subjects and skills I am learning, but the lifelong friendships I am making.

My past school experiences were not so great. Bullying was a big problem that affected me both mentally and physically. I was often angry and frustrated which led to not thinking before I acted. Sometimes I didn’t go to school to avoid the bully and all of the stress.

But Miriam Academy changed everything. This school is truly a lifesaver and I might not even be in school if it were not for Miriam. My social and academic skills have increased astronomically and no more bullies!

The Academy is an opportunity to make great friendships not only with your peers, but with the ones you look up to like your teachers and head of school. These are the kind of friendships we all cherish because they are amazing and unique. Yes, academics are important, but without friends then you don’t have anyone to share your knowledge and happiness with. Now I have the friends and support I need. That is how Miriam Academy changed my life.

–Submitted by Nick Lewis, Miriam Academy junior

I can’t say enough how the Miriam School changed our family. We would not be where we are today physically, emotionally and mentally without this special place.

Our journey began when Owen was born almost 13 years ago and was a mystery from the moment he took his first breath. We were living in the suburbs near New York City with access to the best hospitals, schools and experts in the world. Yet none of them had any answers for us. Years of doctors and therapy appointments led us to a diagnosis of high functioning autism and epilepsy. The diagnoses did not change anything – it was just a label.

When Owen was about to start kindergarten, we left New York and came to St. Louis for a job opportunity. He entered public school and made it about ten days. Thankfully we heard about Miriam School from a friend and immediately enrolled him at the Learning Center and applied to the school. Owen was accepted and finally became the child we knew was inside him.

At Miriam, Owen was happy, loved and getting exactly what he needed emotionally, physically and academically. This calmness spread to our entire family, and we were able to do things that we had never done before.

In October 2014, we had to move to Pennsylvania for my husband’s job. We felt Owen was ready as he was now in third grade and had exceeded all of our expectations. Prior to our move, we contacted seven private schools that educated children with learning differences in hopes one would work for Owen.

Once we got to Pennsylvania, Owen did his school visits but needless to say, none of these schools were like Miriam School. They did not have the warm, loving and accepting environment that you feel at Miriam when you walk in the front door. We spent the next two and a half years searching for the Miriam of Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Owen went to three schools in those two and a half years and we moved again within Pennsylvania to be closer to a school we thought would be a good fit. This school was state of the art for children in K-12 grades with learning differences. We sold our house and made the move again for Owen.

Within the first week, we knew he was unhappy again and had made a mistake. I began secretly working on an escape plan to get back to St. Louis for Owen to come back to Miriam. This would be our ninth move if we could make it happen. The stars aligned and in the spring of 2017, we were hopeful that a move back to St. Louis for the Miriam School would become a reality.

My husband was able to get a job based in Indianapolis and they agreed that we could live in St. Louis for Owen. We did the research and showed them there was no school for Owen in Indianapolis that was like Miriam School. Owen started back at Miriam in June 2017 at summer camp and now our Owen was BACK!

Wow, what a difference to see this transformation of our Owen that had been missing for two and a half years. Thank you to the Miriam team for welcoming Owen and our family back “home”!

-Submitted by Margaret Dorf

Kaden holds the distinction of being at Miriam longer than any current student. Now a sophomore at Miriam Academy, Kaden first entered Miriam School at age six with a diagnosis of ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder. Kaden trotted into Ms. Angie’s first grade room with more than a little trepidation, but any fears were calmed when they immediately bonded. The enthusiasm of the staff at Miriam School cemented our confidence we had made the right decision.

Kaden completed his elementary and middle school education at Miriam School which offered our son a full spectrum of education and therapies tailored to his specific needs. He received speech, occupational and physical therapies which blended with the educational curriculum for a well-rounded experience.

But Miriam School was more than a source of education and therapy for Kaden. It provided an environment for social growth and awareness that led to friendships and lasting memories. Kaden blossomed as a student and enjoyed going to school every day. His coordination and motor skills improved to the point where he no longer needed additional therapies. He progressed from tirelessly learning to hold and maneuver a pencil correctly, to having the skills, patience and athleticism to obtain a Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do at age 14.

Last year we were excited to enroll Kaden at Miriam Academy to complete his high school years. Without a doubt his freshman year was the most fulfilling and rewarding year Kaden has had as a student! His confidence and maturity grew week by week as the teachers inspired him to push himself intellectually and socially. Kaden is finally able to experience the pride and satisfaction of tackling educational projects and completing them with high standards.

The reward is not just the letter grades, but the sense of accomplishment and happiness he exudes. For the first time he played on a baseball team with his fellow classmates and experienced the fun of team effort. His first “base hit” is something we will never forget.

Perhaps more important than acknowledging Kaden’s growth and maturation is the recognition that he has taught us as much as we have given him. Through voice and action, Kaden has shown us how to live with a heart filled with love, tolerance, acceptance and integrity. He is a motivation to all that are in his life. While we believe we are leading him, he is actually guiding us.

-Submitted by David and Amanda Berg

I have spent the summer working in the Miriam School gym, looking out the window at the new middle school building and renovation project taking shape. Seeing the old being revitalized, while observing the new being built on what has come before is a wonderful metaphor for our new chapter as I become Head of School.

As I look to this new future, I naturally think about how far Miriam School and I have both come in the 19 years since I first walked through the doors of Room 7 to begin my career here teaching 4th, 5th and 6th grades. During the 11 years I was in the classroom, we created a strong program integrating social skills and rigorous academics and we opened the middle school where I was asked, along with Dr. Kathie Pontikes, to teach the first 8th grade class.

In 2010, I transitioned to Associate Head of School and during the next eight years, we added a gymnasium which enabled us to enhance our arts, OT, and social skills programming, as well as a playground that gives students another sensory outlet during the school day. We also implemented
a 21st century learning approach across all subject areas, including an emphasis on project based learning for science and social studies.

We added a teaching kitchen and a community garden, both of which afford students opportunities to gain and use a variety of skills to reach out into the wider community as they plan, grow, sell, and donate produce as well as create dishes for others.

A generous donor enabled us to implement a one-to-one iPad program and
then, as now, we have continued to research, pilot and implement innovative
curriculum, as well as train future teachers and therapists as we collaborate with
local universities.

All of these initiatives have helped to secure our standing as leaders in the field of educating children who learn differently. Now, we stand ready to grow an even stronger program all while we keep the best of the past—namely a culture of collaboration, caring and respect alongside the families we serve.

As I begin this new era in my tenure as Head of School, I find myself with many thoughts looking out
the window to the future. One thought stands above all — gratitude. I am grateful to the board and executive leadership who have given me this opportunity to guide a program that for 62 years has changed the lives of so many children and families and led them to a better future.

I am grateful to the families who believe so passionately in the work we do here and who work alongside us to help their children achieve success. I am grateful to the faculty and staff who work with every child as if he or she were their own. They faithfully strive to deliver the finest, most comprehensive program possible to every child, every day.

Most of all, I am grateful to our children who come to school and work to be the best they can be. I am always amazed by their bravery, dedication and hard work every day. Who among us shows up and does hard things day after day, never giving up, always willing to try again, for as long as it takes to be successful? These are our children.

I look forward to working with all those who believe so deeply in Miriam School and the work we do here — board, executive leadership, families, faculty and staff — to ensure that the view out the window is always one of a community that is building for the strongest, brightest future possible for children who learn differently.

-Submitted by Mary Cognata

My son Devlin is the bravest person I know. When he was just two and a half years old, he was diagnosed with autism. Though he didn’t have much language, we were able to come up with a game plan and he did fairly well in a special education classroom.

Everything changed right before his fifth birthday when Devlin was hit by a car. Both of his legs were broken and this beautiful tiny child of mine was in a body cast from the waist down. It was heartbreaking, but this tragedy brought about language and he began to blossom. Less than six months later, Devlin would have to have his femur rebroken and go through the mending process again. On the bright side, his speech continued to improve during this time.

Devlin entered kindergarten in a new classroom for children on the spectrum and we were hopeful, but he was then diagnosed with ADHD. This was tough because he needed medicine. While Devlin did well in a special education classroom, he was later mainstreamed into a typical classroom and he got little support.

The older Devlin got, the more he stood out from his peers. It was tough finding a place he “fit.” The special classrooms were no longer a good fit and the traditional classroom setting was getting harder every year.

When Devlin was 11, he was diagnosed with anxiety and it was pretty debilitating. Crowds would throw Devlin into panic attacks and he became more isolated with few friends. I was so worried about him and I knew something had to change.

One day my aunt said she had a friend who knew a teacher at Miriam Academy and recommended I talk to humanities teacher Chris Holmes. I spoke to Mr. Holmes and he suggested I tour Miriam’s new high school. I wasn’t sure about moving, but I agreed to come look at Miriam Academy and soon everything changed.

I was overcome with emotion when we toured. I cried because I knew Devlin belonged at Miriam Academy. When he was accepted, we picked up and moved to be closer to the school.

Devlin warmed up far quicker than I expected. He became more and more himself again. He gets in the car happy, laughs and he feels good about himself. I haven’t seen this side of Devlin in a long time and it is so refreshing.

When I drop Devlin off in the mornings, I sometimes find myself tearing up because I am so thankful for Miriam. The staff not only understands him, they embrace him. Devlin thinks outside of the box and the teachers at Miriam know how to encourage him. I love it!

As a single parent, I have always worried about what would happen to Devlin when I am gone. But his experience at Miriam has given me confidence that Devlin has a chance at a really great life, with friends and love. Miriam is the difference between surviving and thriving. We are so
thankful and I am so proud of Devlin, my true hero.

–Submitted by Heather Riney