Accessing Potential in Innovative Ways: STEM in Special Education

From Parochial School to Special Education School

When Allison Palfy started working at Immaculate Conception Catholic School in Augusta, Georgia in 2013, it was a small parochial school serving kindergarten through eighth grade students. After losing many of its minority students to public schools after 1960, Immaculate Conception started to lose steam. The enrollment rate was continuing to decline the year that Palfy took on her new role as Principal and she knew that something needed to change. 

Principal Allison Palfy, along with two other community leaders, Debbie DeRoller, who has been involved with the school since 1999, and Pastor Fr. Jacek Szuster, spearheaded a complete transformation starting in 2015. Their heart and focus was turned to Special Education, and after nearly a decade of running a school tailored to neurodivergent students, the team finds daily inspiration in their students’ growth.

Today, Immaculate Conception has evolved into a school for neurodivergent students ranging from preschoolers to young adults up to the age of 25. The new mission for school leaders is to equip special education students for professional roles, offering them a path forward and highlighting their limitless potential. Initially, the prospect of catering to such a wide age range seemed daunting for Palfy and her team. How could they facilitate learning and develop a cohesive curriculum spanning over two decades?

In 2023, Palfy stumbled upon Woz ED through PowerUP EDU. She had been seeking a comprehensive STEM program for implementation at her school, anticipating that the students at Immaculate Conception would thrive in a STEM-focused environment. Her intuition proved correct. Despite facing challenges in social awareness, reading comprehension, and communication, many students demonstrated remarkable strengths in listening comprehension, hands-on learning, and creativity. Woz ED STEM Kits have been a wonderful addition to Immaculate Conception’s arsenal. They have created a way forward for students who have traditionally been marginalized and have allowed them to embrace their own potential. 

STEM Learning at Immaculate Conception

Immaculate Conception has what they refer to as “STEM Friday,” dedicating the entire day to STEM learning. All teachers have undergone training on Woz ED Kits, allowing students of all ages to engage with science and technology resources throughout the day. As they continue on their STEM journey, the school is exploring various teaching approaches to best cater to their students’ needs.

Currently, they are observing that STEM Education boosts students’ confidence. Palfy and DeRoller noted that some students who rarely spoke in school now actively participate during STEM classes. They have witnessed heightened levels of collaboration, a remarkable shift considering the social challenges neurodivergent students often face. On STEM Friday, barriers seem to dissolve as students assist each other in building robots and drones, communicate effectively, and display newfound confidence.

The dedicated team of teachers and administrators at Immaculate Conception have witnessed their students thrive while utilizing Woz ED STEM Kits. When asked why students with special needs seem to grasp and engage with these resources better than other subject material, Palfy and DeRoller attributed it to the hands-on nature of STEM, the “try until you get it” mindset, and the demand for a different mode of thinking, which their students excel in.

Future of STEM at Immaculate Conception

In just a few short years, Palfy and her team shifted their focus to STEM, acquiring all the Woz ED STEM Kits, introducing STEM Fridays, and diligently cultivating an environment that nurtures creativity, confidence, support, collaboration, and positive growth among their students. They have already procured all the Woz ED Science Pathway Kits for implementation in the 2024/2025 academic year, paving the way for Immaculate Conception to become both a Woz ED STEM and Woz ED Science Pathway School. This timeline is impressive and Palfy remains unwavering in her pursuit of the best resources for her students.

A primary objective for the Immaculate Conception team is to establish a dedicated STEM center, providing students with ample space to explore and experiment with tools such as drones and 3D printers. Starting next year, they will integrate STEM as a standalone subject into the daily curriculum, alongside math, reading, and science classes, led by specialized STEM instructors. Additionally, they aim to explore various career readiness programs catering to future markets, such as hydroponics and gardening. DeRoller mentions that students are constantly generating new pathway ideas, eagerly anticipating potential contributions from Mr. Wozniak himself in the future.

Champions of Special Education in STEM & Beyond

The school’s journey has been far from easy. Guiding a school through any transition, especially one involving the adoption of special education standards, presents significant challenges. It demands patience, unwavering dedication, and endless support. DeRoller and Palfy are in it for the students first and foremost. They have a newfound purpose at Immaculate Conception: To give students with special needs the space and resources to thrive and succeed just the same as their neuro-typical peers. 

I can’t put it any better than Palfy herself, whose passion for special education advocacy speaks through her. She tells me,

“I see where these kids come from, and they come from poor experiences within the public school system, at least here in our area. They are overlooked and marginalized. They are made to feel that they are less than their peers. We want to show these students that they are super-stars. They are the future of this country and nobody can push them aside… They have as much potential as anyone attending fancy ivy league prep schools, but they may need to access that potential in a different way, which is what we strive to do. I refuse to have them overlooked any longer. I want them to shine for themselves and for others.”

Published: May 17, 2024


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