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School offers love and support to students with special needs

When Dr. John Althoff and his wife, Jamie, discovered that their unborn baby, Elise, had Down syndrome, Althoff began researching special education options near their home. Heartbreakingly, the Althoffs lost Elise a week before she was due.

Special needs child and teacher
With an about 1:3 student to staff ratio, Divine Savior School offers individualized care plans, but all students have “Jesus Time” built into each day.
Special needs school children doing artwork
Students in the Bridge Program work together on a science class presentation. The program allows middle and high schoolers at Divine Savior School to join in classes at Divine Savior Academy.

But then, Althoff, a teacher at Divine Savior Academy, Doral, Fla., couldn’t get that research out of his head. He had discovered that south Florida lacked schools that could adequately serve children with behavioral and developmental needs. He believed that these children—and their parents—were slipping through the cracks, and he was determined to change that.

He approached school leadership with his dream. “I was blessed to talk to the administrators and say, ‘Can I look into starting a new program for kids with special needs?’ And I got nothing but support,” he recalls. “It was very obvious that our challenge [was turning] into a blessing.”

In 2020, Divine Savior School was born under Althoff’s leadership, serving students age 3 through high school. The school, which currently serves 44 students, partners with Divine Savior Therapies, an organization that provides speech, occupational, and behavior therapy for students. The two organizations work together to assess the emotional and educational needs of each child, leading to individualized care plans. Althoff says, “The academics for each child are very much based on where that child is at.”

Although the school day is structured differently than traditional schools, God’s Word remains the foundation. Built into each day is “Jesus Time,” helping children know they are deeply loved by God. Music is a large component of Jesus Time. “The kids have picked up so much through music,” Althoff says. “Some who were potentially nonverbal found their voice through singing about Jesus.”

Divine Savior School serves not only the unique needs of students but their parents as well. Knowing an emotional and spiritual support system is essential for families, Althoff started a monthly devotion group for dads. “We get to share the gospel, but it’s also turned into a huge support group,” he says. A similar group serves moms. The groups have provided an avenue for several parents to become members of Divine Savior Church.

The outreach culture of the school has also impacted staff, many of whom are not members of Divine Savior Church. Althoff and pastors from the church regularly hold staff devotions. Staff members also volunteer at church on Sundays to help their students go to Sunday school so parents can attend worship. “We have parents who haven’t been to church in years because they felt they couldn’t because of their kids’ behaviors,” Althoff says. “It’s awesome to see employees volunteering who aren’t even members of the church.”

One of the benefits of Divine Savior School is the shared mission and partnership with Divine Savior Academy. The Bridge Program allows middle and high schoolers at Divine Savior School to join classes next door at Divine Savior Academy as they are able, in groups of two or three with one assistant teacher. Connecting the kids from both schools fosters awareness, empathy, and inclusion.

Althoff is excited to see how God will continue to bless Divine Savior School. Beginning next school year, a new program will provide spiritual and vocational education to young adults with special needs that can connect them with potential employers. Also in the works is a special needs confirmation class.

On the wall in Althoff’s office hangs a poster with the words “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” from John 15:12. “That was our theme last school year,” he says. “I kept it up because it’s in everything we do.”

Author: FIC
Volume: 111, Number 02
Issue: February 2024

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