Category Archives: My Miriam Story

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

When our seven-year old son Nathaniel came home on the first day of Miriam’s summer camp program, he told me that he was learning how to make and be a friend. This was the first time he had ever verbalized what he had learned in a day. What a huge accomplishment for him!

Nathaniel is a bright, happy, sweet child who also struggles with emotional regulation, visual processing, language and word retrieval and working memory deficits.  We decided to get him extra support and found Miriam through our occupational therapist. Nathaniel started with Miriam Learning Center last summer when we hired a language therapist and an academic tutor to come to his previous summer school.  By the time school started, he had progressed through many of his IEP goals for reading and was already communicating more clearly and frequently, so we continued to have Miriam’s tutors come during the school year.

Miriam worked with Nathaniel throughout kindergarten at his public school and helped him with academics and speech/language. He has really thrived with the one-on-one attention and we have seen so much progress, especially in the areas of his reading and speech.

Now at Miriam’s summer camp, Nathaniel is really enjoying the Harry Potter theme. As part of the Confident Kid’s Social Skills class, Nathaniel is learning about sharing, taking turns and kindness through lots of fun activities.  When he brought home a chocolate frog he made, he had the biggest smile on his face.  He has been really excited to show off his work, which is somewhat unusual for him. It is clear that he really enjoys being at Miriam. He recently told us that Miriam’s summer camp is his favorite place so far!

Miriam’s small class settings are great for Nathaniel. The teachers understand him and if he has a meltdown, he is learning a life lesson about how to handle his feelings, rather than just being sent aside until he’s ready to rejoin the group.

We have consistently seen identifiable progress in our son when Miriam has been involved at both camp or school.  Miriam’s teachers and staff have provided Nathaniel with new tools and skills to better handle many of the challenges he faces. At Miriam, he has a safe place to practice these skills and build more confidence.

Miriam and all their staff truly care for their students and children. They provide a safe and nurturing environment as well as the knowledge and skills to assist children to achieve, be successful and show their true potential.

-Submitted by Karen Myrick

When my son Austin was in middle school, I knew he was going to need another option for high school. I started doing some online research and came across a Facebook ad for Miriam Academy and clicked the “Learn More” button. I never would have guessed how much that button would change our lives! We did a school tour and our first thought was Austin should have been in a school like Miriam all along.

It all started at just a few weeks old when Austin had asthma and severe allergies and was later diagnosed with ADHD in kindergarten. He could keep up in the younger grades socially and academically, but as he got to upper elementary and middle school the differences were dramatic. His grades declined because of his learning and social disabilities and he was bullied. He still deals with some of the lasting effects today.

Since enrolling Austin in Miriam Academy’s first freshman class almost two years ago, we have seen huge progress! He started school totally discouraged and afraid to trust the teachers and other students, but realized that Miriam Academy was a safe place for him and he began to like school.

The Academy’s humanities teacher, Mr. Holmes, really helped to pull Austin out of his shell. Mr. Holmes encourages Austin and even when the words have to be tough, Mr. Holmes always treats him with respect.

When I asked Austin the main reason he likes Miriam he said “It gives kids a second chance.” The Academy has completely changed how he feels about school. He likes the teachers, kids, and the safe feeling school gives him.

Austin loves being on the Academy’s baseball team and is doing a summer internship at the JCC this summer as a camp counselor and is excited to get his first paycheck. He wants to be a firefighter/ EMT and is a volunteer Explorer Fire Fighter through the Berkeley Fire Dept. Austin is very close to getting his driver’s license and is looking forward to his junior year at Miriam!

Miriam Academy has given Austin a chance to experience some of the things that he would see at any high school from clubs and internships, to sports and social events. I appreciate that families are so involved in the school too.

As a parent, I now see HOPE! My son is excited about school again and that makes me happy. There are still some bumps in the road, but the bumps are easier with the Miriam community of teachers, staff and families behind us.

Submitted by Tricia Robb


“My stomach hurts.” “I don’t feel good.” “I don’t want to go to school.” These phrases became all too common from our son five years ago when he was in third grade. It was becoming very evident that his school at the time was not meeting his needs. Academic struggles, limited resources to help struggling kids, teachers with limited background in helping kids with learning difficulties – all led to our son, Santos, just not wanting to be there.

Santos had been diagnosed with ADHD at age five, but with these experiences in third grade we decided to do further testing. In the summer after third grade, he was diagnosed with numerous learning disabilities. We knew we had to do something different for Santos. Our pediatrician had mentioned Miriam School, as her daughter had attended there.

After numerous visits to the school we concluded that this could be the place for him. There was just one thing…we lived in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, at the time. This was 65 miles from Miriam, over an hour drive, one way. Were we crazy to consider this? Is this nuts? Would we really drive him to school every day to St. Louis, over two hours in the car every day? My initial answers to these questions were yes, yes, and no. The answer to the third question, well…

Our family vacation landed us in Durango, Colorado, that summer. It was a Thursday morning. School was starting in less than a week. Where would Santos go for 4th grade? From the hotel parking lot I made the call to tell the school that we wanted to enroll Santos for the year. The following Monday, we were at Miriam for “Meet the Teacher.” Our adventure was beginning!

For the next two years, my wife Diann drove Santos from Ste. Genevieve to Miriam every day for school. Our challenges did not immediately cease. Santos resisted at first. We still had stomach aches. There were numerous bathroom stops, numerous times a day, at numerous quick shops along the way. (Diann became an expert on all the amenities at every gas station between Ste. Genevieve and St. Louis.) Santos spent a lot of time in the office of Mary Cognata, Associate Head of School. Her loving, caring, yet firm way of dealing with Santos was immeasurable and invaluable.

Slowly but surely, Santos adapted. He became more and more comfortable with the school and staff. Eventually, he looked forward to going to school. With the help of Ms. C and all the teachers, his anxiety about school slowly and steadily subsided. He made friends and looked forward to social interaction with his classmates. Miriam became his school, his turf. What more could we as parents ask for? The environment at Miriam allowed him to relax and be in a state of mind that allowed him to learn. After his first two years at Miriam, we relocated to the St. Louis area.

I think I knew when I made the call from Colorado that Miriam would be a wonderful place for Santos. What I didn’t know then, that I know now, is how wonderful Miriam would be for Diann and me. We have gotten so much support and guidance from the teachers and staff, just as Santos has. It was such a relief to us to know that Santos’ educational, emotional, and social needs were being met. It was with great joy that we saw him begin to flourish and love to go to school. Miriam has become our school too, our turf. We feel part of the Miriam community.

Santos recently graduated from Miriam and is getting ready to move on to high school. At his 8th grade graduation, Santos received the President’s Award for Academic Excellence. Diann and I were so pleased, proud, and amazed! When we asked Santos what message he wanted us to put in the Miriam yearbook, he said “Stay Determined.” Diann and I looked at each other, somewhat taken back. What more could we have asked for–a lesson learned to last a lifetime.

-Submitted by Tom Loida





Enrolling my great nephew, Damiano, at Miriam School was the best decision we could have ever made. Today he is an outstanding 19-year-old young adult who loves golf, robotics and volunteering and will soon graduate from high school. We owe a huge part of his success to the wonderful experience he had at Miriam School. He attended Miriam during his junior high years in 6-8th grades, which is often the hardest time for kids who are different. The support and community we found at Miriam simply cannot be found anywhere else!

Since he was young, Damiano struggled with ADHD, anxiety and learning challenges. He attended public school in elementary years and did well with an IEP, but when it was time for middle school, we had to find the right learning environment.

Being in healthcare for many years, I had heard so many good things about Miriam School.  I work with psychiatrists and we understand that a learning disability is no different than any other illness. Miriam helps students feel accepted without being made to feel different. It was the perfect fit for my great nephew.

Everything worked for Damiano at Miriam School! His friends loved him for who he was and are still his best friends today. Though there were some things that were different about him, the teachers and staff at Miriam knew just how to work with him.  They know how to make students feel happy, secure and smart. Plus, the kids are taught so much more than academics. Damiano’s social skills and self-confidence grew stronger every day he was there.

Now at St. Mary’s High School, Damiano was chosen as senior of the month due to his constant volunteer work with the homeless and for giving back.  Next year, he plans to go to a local community college and we know that with the tools Miriam gave he him he will be successful. Damiano believes in himself, works hard and doesn’t give up. Miriam also taught him about expectations and helped him learn how to be a friend to others. These lessons will last him a lifetime.

Miriam made the difference for Damiano and for our entire family. I want the community and other parents to know that for any student who learns differently, they can be the brightest shining star and Miriam School is the place where it can happen.

Submitted by Mary Nardoni





As a toddler and a preschooler, Ryder was full of love, adventure, curiosity, and a sense of humor beyond his years. He was also extraordinarily strong-willed and had emotional outbursts that would ignite in the face of common parenting strategies. We spent the first five years of Ryder’s life trying to decipher what reality we were facing. On one hand, Ryder did great in full-time preschool for two years. His teachers and pediatrician advised that he was healthy and ready for kindergarten. On the other hand, Ryder’s anxiety was increasing and he started throwing temper tantrums as kindergarten neared. I relayed concerns to the school, but I didn’t have a medical or school history to reference, so his teacher quickly reassured me that everything would be fine. I stifled my fears and hoped Ryder would thrive.

After a difficult first few days of kindergarten, things improved with the help of motor breaks throughout Ryder’s day. The rest of the first semester went beautifully. But then his beloved grandfather and aunt died within two weeks of each other during winter break. Ryder fell apart overnight and the sparkle in his eyes dimmed. In a haze of grief, Ryder started soaking through three shirts a day from a new habit of chewing on his clothes. He didn’t want to leave the house. He refused to do things he had previously loved. I sent a long email to his teacher, expressing my fears and observations, and I was quickly reassured again.

But Ryder’s downward spiral intensified. His sensory and attention needs escalated. He started bringing home one, sometimes two, Behavior Reports, a pink carbon copy of a written description of his failings at school that were quickly piling up in his permanent record. He would crumple the reports and beg me not to read them. We also started receiving calls during the school day when Ryder would be in ‘distress’. Upon picking him up, the air of frustration and disappointment was palpable, and we knew that Ryder could sense it. We were watching a vicious cycle of behavior incidents, shame, and vanishing self-confidence rapidly unfold. We resolved to find a school that would meet Ryder’s needs.

That January, we embarked on a journey to find answers and solutions. We toured nine schools in St. Louis. When I called Miriam, I talked at length about Ryder’s struggles and potential. The kindness, reassurance, and absence of judgement I felt as I shared my son’s struggles filled me with so much hope.

During our tour of Miriam, the students were friendly, smiling, and sociable. The class sizes were small, and there were endless opportunities to release extra energy to enhance focus and classroom readiness. There was the sensory gym with a ball pit and pedal ride-on cars, the beautiful outdoor playground and garden, kids jumping rope and hopping on bouncy balls through the halls, and the expansive gymnasium. We knew we had found Ryder’s school.

Ryder started school at Miriam in first grade, and he is now in second grade. Since day one at Miriam our family has been showered with so much love. Ryder quickly made close friends, and he is greeted with excitement from his peers and staff every time he walks through the door. His confidence is fostered by the way his strengths and weaknesses are deeply understood and nurtured. Ryder not only receives the breaks he needs, but he is learning to identify and communicate when he needs one of those breaks. He also receives occupational, language and social skills therapies during the school day so that our evenings and weekends are not filled with appointments.

Our journey of learning what Ryder needs continues, but the school is always there to listen and support us with extensive experience and competence. Ryder loves everyone he works with at Miriam School. Before winter break and at the end of the school year, Ryder has an exhaustive list of everyone whom he wishes to thank, extending well beyond his teachers.

We are so thankful for Miriam, a school that provides Ryder with the unconditional love and support he needs to thrive at school. Miriam has helped Ryder’s smile and love of life to return.

-Submitted by Whitey Lane





I always knew I wanted to be a teacher.  Starting in the fourth grade, I began staying after school to help teachers do odd jobs in their classrooms.  Little did I know that this would help shape my future career.

In college, I quickly discovered that as much as I enjoyed the education classes, I wanted more of a connection with students. I was drawn to Special Education and have been passionate about serving exceptional students ever since.

My path lead me to developing programs for students that did not “fit” the traditional school model. The first stop on my journey was at an elementary school where I spent five years developing and implementing a thriving resource program that was often used as a model for other parochial schools.

I left that school after the birth of my first child and spent the next 10 years raising my children and hanging out at their school every chance I could get! I served as the president of the Parent Teacher Organization, and served on the Board of Education and the Marketing Committee. All these experiences kept me connected and involved in developing quality programs for students.

When I chose to re-enter the workforce, I went back as a middle school language arts teacher at another parochial school where I spent two years preparing students for high school, though not all of them were quite ready. Those students needed more interventions at the primary and intermediate levels, and I took on the challenge by creating a resource program that provided pullout and class within a class services.  I later developed an enrichment program to meet the needs of the gifted learners.

After years of developing programs for exceptional and twice exceptional students in private schools, I found my forever home at Miriam Academy! When I heard the news early in the spring of 2016 that Miriam was going to open a new high school, I knew that I had to be a part of this groundbreaking endeavor. I had spent my career working with families who just wanted to get their kids through school. That was never enough for me–I knew that school should be so much more for ALL kids.

Being a part of the founding faculty at Miriam who share a passion for working with students who learn differently is a dream come true. Building programs that focus on student’s strengths and treating deficits as opportunities for growth as well as nurturing each student’s social-emotional growth, is what Miriam Academy is all about.  I am so fortunate to call it home.

-Submitted by Kathy Puettmann





Our sweet son Jacob was diagnosed with global apraxia at the age of three. He had speech, occupational, developmental and physical delays. By second grade the staff at his school realized Jacob needed more than they could give him. It was now time to find the best school for our son.

On the advice of a client, my husband and I toured Miriam School and were very impressed with what we saw. Soon we set a date for Jacob to shadow. I didn’t tell him until the night before because I didn’t want him to argue or get nervous. When I dropped him off that morning he was quiet and it was the longest day of my life. When we picked him up, Jacob was all smiles and asked if he could go to school there. He started a week later and he has been at Miriam ever since!

The teachers and therapists at Miriam School were more than I could have hoped for. When Jacob couldn’t grasp the days of the week, his teacher Miss Candi took his love of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and correlated the dwarves to each day and it clicked in Jacob’s brain. That is just one of the many instances where the staff figured out what worked best to teach my child. They also incorporated therapy into the classroom which made a world of difference for him. Jacob was happy and successful!

When Jacob graduated from Miriam’s elementary and middle school, he moved on to the new high school Miriam Academy. I didn’t know how the Academy would have a staff as wonderful as the one at the School, but they did! Jacob had a great freshman year and achieved things academically I didn’t think were possible for him. The teachers figured out how his brain works and are truly unlocking his potential. Now a sophomore at the Academy, I can’t wait to see all the progress he will make this year.

What Jacob likes most about school is that his friends are like him and the teachers understand him. What my husband and I like about Miriam is that our son is getting what he needs academically and socially in a safe, caring environment. We know Miriam Academy is preparing him for a successful life.

-Submitted by Lisa Wiley