Serving students with special needs

By Sally M. Snell

The Stewart Home School in Kentucky, founded in 1893, is a private, for-profit school and home for intellectually disabled students.

Students at Stewart Home School, like those at any other private boarding school, are busy with academics, friends, field trips and sports. But at this school, all the students are intellectually disabled men and women.

Dr. John Quincy Adams Stewart, who founded the school in 1893, wrote extensively on educating the intellectually disabled and headed the state institution in Kentucky. Eventually, he opened a private, for-profit school for 13 students on the 850-acre grounds of the former Kentucky Military Institute, near Frankfort, Ky.

The founder’s great-grandson, physician Dr. John P. Stewart II, 83, has been at the helm since 1956. He shares ownership with his four children: sons Dr. John D. Stewart II and Charles W. Stewart; and daughters Jean Ann Stewart Banker and Catherine Stewart Brown.

Today, the school has 378 students. Dr. Stewart says that’s enough. “I think we can become too large,” he says. “We might lose some of that personal contact.”

Son-in-law J. Barry Banker, 59, manages the school. After his own family sold its steel business in the 1980s, “I had a little time on my hands, and I said, ‘Dr. Stewart, let me help you get things computerized,’” Banker recalls. Twenty-three years later, he’s still working at the school. A second son-in-law, Martin S. Brown Jr., serves as the school’s attorney.

While the public school system began serving intellectually disabled youth in recent decades, “the advantage we have here is that we have them 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” says Dr. Stewart. A structured program with a consistent schedule is ideal for the students, he says.

As public school systems increased services for intellectually disabled students, the average age of Stewart Home School’s students rose. In 1956, half the Stewart students were under 18; today, only about 8% are. Regardless of residents’ age—the oldest is 90—they are all referred to as “students.”

Parents set academic goals for their children and decide which extracurricular activities they participate in, including whether they seek employment or volunteer in nearby Frankfort. Some students live and learn at Stewart Home School for the rest of their lives. Others have short-term goals, such as earning a GED or learning office skills. Currently, 22 students work off-campus.

Tuition runs about $30,000 per year, with an extra fee for optional activities and services. That’s roughly half what it costs the government to support a group home, say Dr. Stewart and his family. Stewart Home School receives no federal or state money; it has operated as a private, for-profit entity since its founding.

Most students reside in dormitories with private rooms. Each dorm has a family-style dining room and a houseparent.

In 2005, the school built a modern fitness facility. Team sports are offered. “Fitness is a big part of everybody’s day,” says Banker. The school also has nine horses and an indoor riding arena.

Dr. John P. Stewart II’s son, Dr. John D. Stewart II, is a vascular surgeon who oversees students’ surgical care. His wife, Dr. Magdalene Karon-Stewart, also occasionally sees students. “I think that the medical orientation has attracted a lot of families,” the patriarch says.

“We do not feel that we will ever be a panacea for all special ed problems,” the elder Stewart says. “It’s primarily individuals who are highly trainable or educable that we are best suited for.”

The school, whose main building is on the National Register of Historic Places, serves an important purpose, Dr. Stewart says. “I think there’s always going to be a need for a facility of this sort.”

Sally M. Snell is a writer based in Lawrence, Kan.

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Spring 2011

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