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October 7, 2002

Inspired teacher opens second Magnolia Speech School in Pa.

From: Jackson Clarion Ledger, MS
Oct. 7, 2002

By Toni W. Terrett
Special to The Clarion-Ledger

Forty-six years ago, on Sept. 3, Magnolia Speech School opened in Jackson with seven students.

This year, Magnolia Speech School opened in Berwyn, Pa., with seven students — also on Sept. 3.


Maybe not.

"It's meant to be," says Melinda Kotler, founder of the school in Pennsylvania.

The idea of replicating Mississippi's Magnolia Speech School came about after Kotler attended a conference. The Jackson school's director, Anne Sullivan, was a featured speaker.

Kotler, a native Californian and teacher by profession, had moved to San Francisco to seek help from a language-impaired program for her son, Paul, who was diagnosed with autism and apraxia, a motor disorder that affects speech.

"We realized he needed to be under the care of a trained speech pathologist," she said.

Kotler spent five years in California before returning to Pennsylvania.

But she'd done her homework. She knew then that she wanted to replicate the school in Mississippi she had heard so much about.

"It's such an amazing program. It's so detailed, incremental and systematic," she said. "It takes the children from no language to fully literate."

Starting a second Magnolia Speech School was no easy task, and Sullivan admits she was a little skeptical at first. "I thought, 'She doesn't know what it takes to do a school,'" Sullivan said.

But Kotler's determination and the support of Magnolia Speech School's board led to the licensure and opening of the Pennsylvania campus. The school is accredited for preschool through 12th grade.

"We spent 10 months working full time, day and night, to get licensed," Kotler said. "It is a thrill for me every day to get this school. Often it's hard to find programs that meet all the child's needs."

Sullivan was at first concerned that opening a new school would drain the Jackson school's resources.

"We're a small nonprofit school," she said. "We struggle to keep our head above water."

The average student at Magnolia Speech School in Jackson pays $400 per month. The school spends about $1,500 per month on each child, supplementing the difference with funds from outside sources such as United Way, Kelly Cook Foundation and Orbe Kotter Foundation.

Families are charged on a sliding scale according to their income, Sullivan said. "We consider them an investment, not a charity," she said.

In Pennsylvania, community fund-raisers such as the "Walk for Talk" helped raise funds for the new school. Also, Nancy Davis, the supervising teacher for the language disorder department in Jackson, will visit the campus every other month to train teachers and staff.

As the program continues to garner support, Kotler said, "I hope I'll be able to help other people the way Magnolia has helped me."

Magnolia helps the school with lesson plans, schedules and even screens potential students through videotaped interviews.

"It's a pretty good feeling to know we've pulled this off," said Sullivan, noting that she's already received requests from Maryland and the Mississippi Gulf Coast for assistance in opening more schools.

Since they've been working together, Kotler said she's realized "whenever Anne speaks, professionals are so impressed and want to learn more about the program."

The "program" she speaks of is the association method Magnolia Speech School has used in its curriculum since the original founder, Elizabeth "Libba" Matthews, opened the school's doors.

The association method, a structured, multisensory program, has three basic steps: attention, retention and recall. It requires a great deal of repetition and sequencing on the part of the children.

"If they can't remember the order, they can't learn," Sullivan said.

Matthews was one of four students of Mildred McGinnis at the Central Institute for the Deaf in St. Louis. She initially traveled to Missouri to get help for her deaf son, Keith.

She found help through the CID, earned an education degree and returned to Mississippi, where she opened the Magnolia Speech School.

Two other students formed a research institute in San Francisco and a third, Dr. Eloise DuBard, opened another school, the Center for Language Disorders on the campus of the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg.

The schools in Jackson and Hattiesburg are the only ones in the country using the association method on a full-time basis with deaf and language-impaired children.

Many public schools offer similar services, but the difference is the intensity of services in two Mississippi schools, says Maureen Martin, director of the DuBard School for Language Disorders at USM.

A speech pathologist in a public school may be responsible for 60 kids, she says, and may not have the time to give them individualized attention.

The 58 students enrolled at the USM-based school come from 10 to 15 counties and attend school 11 months each year. Depending on the severity of their problems, students may stay for as little as two years or as long as eight years.

"The goal is to get them back into their own local district as soon as possible," Martin said.

Students range from age 3 to 13. "Some are eighth-grade age, but on a fourth- or fifth-grade level academically," Martin said.

The USM school provides training in the association method for special education teachers in Mississippi and other states.

"We have trained a number of people who are using this method with different variations," she said.

But even though the association method has proven effective in the two Mississippi schools and in California, many parents continue to have a hard time finding help for their language-impaired children.

Families from parts of Mississippi and from such states as Delaware and Pennsylvania have moved closer to Hattiesburg and Jackson for the specialized training.

"I don't encourage that," Martin said. "We try to help them find what they need in their area so they don't totally disrupt their lives."

But she realizes that financially strapped rural school districts may have a hard time finding and training teachers to work with language-impaired students.

"It is challenging for schools to develop services," she said.

The lack of full-time language schools in Pennsylvania brought Cheryl Schrettner and her son Jacob to Mississippi about a year ago.

Schrettner started researching her options when her son Jacob, 9, was diagnosed with the speech disorder apraxia.

"I knew from years of him being in public schools and going through special education he wasn't learning anything," she said.

After attending a symposium where Sullivan spoke, Schrettner decided to make the move to Mississippi — a state she had only visited once as a small child.

Schrettner and her husband filed suit against their local school district to foot the tuition bill because the services were not available in the state.

"His language has increased substantially," she said. "His verbalization went from one to two word utterances to making complete sentences."

Compared to the Pennsylvania schools where "they were just concerned about pushing kids to the next grade," Schrettner says, Magnolia is the best place for Jacob.

Even though an identical school has now opened in Pennsylvania, Schrettner plans to keep Jacob in Jackson until it is time for him to mainstream into a regular classroom.

"It's a very unique school," she said.

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