PINELLAS PARK, Fla. (WFLA) – A Pinellas Park school for children with special needs and learning disabilities is going the extra mile for its students.
Morning Star School teaches children from kindergarten through 12th grade. It is a non-profit school and a mission of the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg.
The school has a comprehensive curriculum for those of all learning abilities. Class sizes are very small with just 10 students.
In addition to academics, Morning Star features onsite occupational therapy, speech therapy and art and music therapies.
James Riley is a music therapist and works with students on Thursdays.
Classes can involve ukuleles and drums, as well as original songs to address specific topics. Riley said the classes sometimes involve art and use a lot of movement.
“So instead of a regular music program, we’re using music as a tool to accomplish more than just musical enjoyment and learning, but academic learning…We’re using music as a tool to help out with other nonmusical goals,” he told 8 On Your Side’s Daisy Ruth. “They love it. So the kids see the music. And they enjoy singing, dancing, playing instruments. But we and the parents and the teachers, we see the therapy. We see all the good that we’re accomplishing through music.”
In addition to the various forms of therapies, the school also “employs” two facility dogs, Demetri and Tribby.
Mona Tomlin works with Tribby in a classroom of mostly middle schoolers with various learning styles.
“She helps them practice their vocabulary words, their spelling words. A lot of just cuddling and being read to and making us feel safe and just making the room a great place to be,” she said.
Tomlin said Tribby loves to play fetch with the students and knows tricks such as tug and push, which can be used in games.
Demetri works with an occupational therapist at the school, providing comforts and sometimes even lap cuddles in additional to aiding in therapy.
A sensory room can also be found at Morning Star School. It features weighted blankets, a sound machine and more to help students soothe themselves when they are over-stimulated.
Other items to calm students include a bubble, water and rice tables, fiber optic lights and large stuffed animals.
Jennifer Brooks has a 14-year-old son who previously attended Morning Star School. She said the school was a perfect fit for her family.
“They’re able to take the time to look at each individual child’s needs because there is a very low student to teacher ratio,” she said. “And that provides the opportunity to look at each child’s needs and to identify needs where there are deficits and work to bring that child up to where they need to be, but in a nurturing way, in a way where the child doesn’t feel rushed or like they’re failing.”
Brooks said sometimes school for special needs children isn’t always a positive experience.
She believes Morning Star is just what the school’s students need, and said it was true for her own child.
“And once they came here and were a part of this environment and community, because of the way that their needs were being addressed, suddenly they want to go to school seven days a week.”