MYAKKA CITY — When Sister Gilchrist Cottrill got her first look at Bowman Ranch last winter, she was taken by the serenity, beauty and spaciousness of the place.
Formerly a home for troubled girls operated by the Sarasota YMCA, the vacant campus with its five buildings at the end of a winding, tree-lined lane, seemed tailor-made for her Ave Maria Preparatory School and its students with special learning needs.
In August, Ave Maria Preparatory School, founded by Cottrill six years ago, relocated to Bowman Ranch from its former location on Tuttle Road.
Ave Maria Prep’s motto is “Moved by Miracles” and Cottrill admits that she and school nurse Joan Willett buried a Miraculous Medal on the property and said a prayer there during an early visit.
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Fifty students, drawn from Parrish and south to North Port, now attend Ave Maria, located off Verna Road, 24 miles east of Bradenton. The school offers free transportation and is open to students regardless of religious background.
Among the students’ special learning needs are attention disorders, auditory processing issues, mild to moderate autism, developmental delay and emotional problems.
Students range in age from 6 to 22 and are in kindergarten through 12th grade. Many attend on McKay Scholarships.
The McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program provides families the opportunity and funding to send their children to the school of their choice. It is named for John McKay, of Bradenton, former president of the Florida Senate.
“What’s new is that we’re now offering a career and transitional program into adulthood,” Cottrill said. “Students learn independently and they learn to speak up for themselves. We teach them social skills, and how to make plans and keep them. We role play social skills here.”
Joan Willett, who has worked with Sister Cottrill since 1994, said students are encouraged to advocate for themselves and not be embarrassed by their disability.
“If they need more time, they should speak up. Their disability can be a benefit. They have had to learn to cope, to work hard and acquire skills. They’ll bring more stability to their job,” Willett said.
Ave Maria’s staff of 15 is eclectic and with a variety of student learning needs, a cookie-cutter approach won’t work.
“Each teacher’s method is an art in how to respond to each student. You keep working until you get it right,” Cottrill said.
Sharon Lowe, grandmother of a child with autism who attends Ave Maria, has become a volunteer and booster of the school, along with her husband Ron.
Ave Maria worked with her grandson to bring out his personality and to show that he can do things other children can do, Lowe said.
In addition to the staff, Cottrill believes the pastoral setting of Ave Maria works to the student’s advantage.
“Most of our kids have sensory issues: too loud, too crowded. We can spread them out here. We’re not in a confined area,” Cottrill said.
The luxury of space means that Ave Maria can also accept more students, probably capping the enrollment at about 75.
The school is planning an open house from 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Nov. 4. For more information, call 322-1601.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 708-7916.