By Christina Autry
For parents of children with neurological differences, finding a learning environment in which their child can thrive may be an overwhelming challenge. Traditional schools struggle to provide individualized, developmentally appropriate cognitive, emotional and social skills that are so critical to children’s success and happiness in school. Once families have navigated their way through K-12 obstacles, the question remains; what will my child do after high school graduation, and beyond?
In response to these universal questions faced by parents, in 1997, Spring Branch’s accredited Monarch School and Institute began filling this need for specialized services from age three through adulthood. As a former Catholic school principal, Monarch founder Dr. Marty Webb was disappointed by Houston’s lack of therapeutic day programs for individuals with special needs, so she created her own solution. She first established the school in her garage, and from there, Monarch was housed inside the Houston Mennonite Church, before moving into a strip center, and finally landing on its current 11-acre plot donated to the school by MetroNational.
As I met with Head of School Patti Pace, large windows allowed us to see learners walking around the soccer field and past our window, waving at us each time they passed. The school’s beautiful, new facilities include a good deal of green space for outdoor learning, athletics, and a calming, peaceful atmosphere. I could see the wooden building they are using to meet the “Living Building Challenge,” which is designed to produce more energy than it takes, through use of a wind turbine, solar energy, and hydroponics, all operated by students.
Students and adults diagnosed with ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, anxiety, neurodevelopmental disorders, and other cognitive differences are accepted and served at Monarch. Underlying all student activities are four core goals: improving executive functions, self-awareness and self-regulation, relationship development, and academic and professional competencies. Diagnosticians, occupational therapists, speech therapists, and art therapists play a significant role in the lives of students, as well as the community, to whom services are also available.
“Our program is unique in Houston because we provide a therapeutic setting, while also getting our learners involved in the community in an authentic way,” says Patti. “We want them to experience life to their fullest capability.” The accessibility and convenience of Spring Branch made it easy for the students at the Monarch School to spread their wings. Children and adults travel from 54 zip codes around Houston year-round to benefit from what Monarch has to offer.
One of the highest goals of the young learners in the elementary program is to foster friendships between students and positive relationships between teachers and students. “Some children who have developed school-phobia in the past are already smiling ear to ear when they visit Monarch. Children reluctant to interact with others have opened up and blossomed, found their confidence, and made friends within our caring and loving student body,” says Patti.
Students throughout the Pre-K-12 program are grouped based on developmental level as well as academic level. Students may be up to 5 years apart in age, but learning and interacting together seamlessly. Therapists are coupled with every teacher, working alongside the teacher for an extra level of student-centered support. Small student to teacher ratios such as 2:1, 4:1, or 6:1 are the norm, depending on the needs of the children.
Arts, workplace skills, and social services are the most popular fields that students enjoy at Monarch. A professional kitchen is used by students daily in preparing lunches, food for events held at the school, or even catering. Students in the Maker Space room create finely crafted wooden tools such as ice cream scoopers or pizza slicers, and sell them at the school gift shop. Students recently designed a dog toy that we might see sold in stores soon. Students are giving back to the community through work with Memorial Assistance Ministries, and Spring Branch ISD. They are developing their artistic talents through musical theater, instruments, visual arts, while some thrive in the corporate setting; performing office tasks, or marketing.
Touring these real-world classrooms introduced me to students enthusiastically working on their independent and group projects, and greeting us as we walked in. Many young people introduced themselves to me and shook my hand, and happily welcomed their Head of School as well. “I’m very talented at arts and crafts,” I was informed by one young woman creating props for an upcoming performance. “Do you want a side-hug?” Patti was asked by one young man designing a flyer for a school event. She graciously accepted the offer.
These many skills are showcased every year at the school’s fall and spring soiree, open to the community, in which the students run the show. They plan, budget, prepare the menu, and purchase the ingredients for the 5-course meal that they prepare for guests who in a dinner theater atmosphere, watch a student-led talent show. Students interact with guests and introduce themselves to the audience, building their confidence and comfortability in social situations.
The question “what about after high school graduation?” is answered within Monarch’s Transition Services and Employability programs. Participants are provided guidance in applying academic and social skills to real-world situations. 64% of adults in Monarch’s Employability program are working in the Houston community, in businesses willing to partner with Monarch, like MOD Pizza, Starbucks, HEB, Memorial Assistance Ministries, Toyota Center, Main Street Theater, and more. A fleet of cars transports Monarch residents to and from their places of employment, or to take classes through Houston Community College and Lone Star College.
Spring Branch homes and apartments serve as housing for adult program participants who can live away from home, and are within a walkable distance from the school, as well as stores such as HEB where practical math and life skills lessons often take place. It is here that groups of three adult program participants live with one faculty member who assists them in the tasks of daily living according to their needs. Some adults do not need daily supervision, and live in Monarch’s nearby apartments, or in other parts of Houston.
Patti Pace started her career as a kindergarten teacher, working her way up to Assistant Superintendent in Spring Branch ISD, before taking the Head of School position at Monarch. “I grew up in Spring Branch, and I am a product of Spring Branch schools. This has proved to be the perfect place for our school,” says Patti.
Tours are given to interested community members on Tuesdays and Thursdays, as part of the school’s “friendraising” efforts. “We want to continue creating friendships, because the people we meet may be able to help their friends and family by referring them to the services we offer at Monarch,” says Patti. Anyone wishing to support Monarch is encouraged to donate to the Tuition Scholarship Fund that goes directly to helping families access the specialized services they need. This is one piece in Patti’s belief that “the more the community embraces our learners, and understanding and relationships are built, the easier it will be for future generations.”
The Monarch School and Institute
2815 Rosefield Dr, Houston, TX 77080