At Divine Mercy Academy, students with learning differences gain faith, skills

Genevieve Pejulia, a pre-student teacher at Madonna University, works with a Divine Mercy Academy student on a school project. The Divine Mercy Academy, an independent school for students with learning disabilities in the Catholic tradition, opened in Livonia in 2019 for students whose parents desired for them to still receive a Catholic education. (Photos by Daniel Meloy | Detroit Catholic)

Independent school for children with diverse learning needs offers personalized lessons, curriculum steeped in Catholic faith

LIVONIA — Rebecca Sposita knew Divine Mercy Academy was the right fit for her son when she first walked into the school.

Her son spent a semester of pre-kindergarten in a public school, but he wasn’t moving at the same pace as the rest of his classmates.

His communication skills were delayed, and he was falling behind the rest of his class, to the point where Sposita would often volunteer to be in the classroom to assist the teacher who was dealing with 30 other pre-kindergartners.

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To put it plainly, Sposita knew the school wasn't working out for her son, and he needed to go somewhere he could thrive.

After discovering Divine Mercy Academy on Facebook and meeting with the school's principal, Barbara Brish, Sposita knew her family had found a place where her son could learn and know he was loved by God.

“First and foremost, the small class sizes were exactly what he needed,” Sposita told Detroit Catholic. “Each of the educators having certification and teaching experience in working with children with learning differences and special needs was huge. And the Catholic aspect was important for us. Our son wanted to make his first Communion, but wasn’t able to keep up with the regular catechism class at our church. Divine Mercy Academy offered him a chance to learn about the Eucharist at his pace.”

Divine Mercy Academy teacher Laurynn Morton works with two students. The small classes sizes are key to the Divine Mercy Academy school culture.
Divine Mercy Academy teacher Laurynn Morton works with two students. The small classes sizes are key to the Divine Mercy Academy school culture.

Divine Mercy Academy, located in the former St. Genevieve school building in Livonia, is a one-of-a-kind independent Catholic school that provides faith-based education in the Catholic tradition in a non-traditional setting for students who need extra help in the classroom.

The school opened in 2019 after families and alumni of Detroit Catholic Central High School gathered to discuss the needs of children who were struggling with a traditional school environment. The families wanted to create a purpose-built environment for students with a variety of learning challenges, Brish told Detroit Catholic.

“We don’t qualify students under any type of eligibility like a public school," Brish said. "(Students at Divine Mercy Academy) might have had the side effects of a stroke, ADHD, autism, dyslexia, cerebral palsy — anything that would make it difficult for them to learn. We work with them where they are.”

Divine Mercy Academy currently has 10 students and teaches a K-8 curriculum in which students learn together as a single cohort or split off into smaller groups for certain lessons. The staff, comprising four to five teachers who rotate throughout the day and week, create individual lesson plans.

“Seeing the kids succeed, going from a non-reader to reading above grade level, that’s the best part of my job,” Brish said.
“Seeing the kids succeed, going from a non-reader to reading above grade level, that’s the best part of my job,” Brish said.

“We have all the core subjects you would get in any other school,” Brish said. “On Mondays we have religion, and we work with St. Cecilia Joyful Hearts (a music program for children of all ages) through St. Genevieve-St. Maurice Parish. We have a psychologist who comes in to work with us on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. On Fridays, a physical therapist comes to help the children work on their motor skills. On Mondays and Wednesdays, we have a retired forensic scientist who does hands-on experiences with our children.”

Every teacher at Divine Mercy Academy is trained in special education with years of experience. The fluidity of the school structure allows teachers to break up the cohort into smaller groups for particular lessons and have one-on-one time with students.

“The goal is getting up to grade level,” Brish said. “We work with the state of Michigan on core curriculum, but we also follow along with the curriculum of the archdiocese. When students come to school, we have an individual learning plan for the student.”

Divine Mercy Academy hands out progress reports to parents of students up to sixth grade and has formal report cards in seventh and eighth grade — that way students have grades to submit for high school entrance.

Sposita said her son has shown marked learning improvement since he started attending Divine Mercy Academy. As parents, they receive feedback on their son’s progress through a daily app and weekly newsletter from Brish on what’s happening at the school.

"His reading has come so far, and his math skills are improving, in addition to the emotional support he is getting there. He is advancing in every possible way,” said Sposita, who is also a member of the school's board.

Louise Zilka is the reading and language arts teacher at Divine Mercy Academy after teaching nine years at Most Holy Trinity in Detroit and 30 years at Lincoln Park Public Schools, primarily working with children with special needs.
Louise Zilka is the reading and language arts teacher at Divine Mercy Academy after teaching nine years at Most Holy Trinity in Detroit and 30 years at Lincoln Park Public Schools, primarily working with children with special needs.

“We want our son in a place where he feels safe and accepted, and that’s the most important thing. That was readily apparent when he started going to Divine Mercy Academy,” Sposita added. “This is a place where he is happy to go to every day, and the teachers and students are supportive."

Louise Zilka, reading and language arts teacher at Divine Mercy Academy, began teaching at the school after nine years at Most Holy Trinity in Detroit and 30 years in the Lincoln Park Public Schools, primarily working with children with special needs.

In many educational settings, including public and parochial schools, students with different learning needs are separated from their peers for special education services, if they are provided at all, Zilka said.

“When we take in students, we take them at the level where they are," Zilka said. "We’re not looking at their grade; we build on the skills they might have missed in an earlier grade, as opposed to trying to fit them if they have missed a year at school.

"The children can feel success, parents are happier, and there is less frustration, less stress, less anxiety,” Zilka added. “It’s learning without labels. We don’t give them a label, we just welcome.”

Sr. Anna Dien Vu, LHC, works one-on-one student. Sr. Anna Dien Vu is studying special education at Madonna University. The Divine Mercy Academy has a close relationship with Madonna University and the University of Detroit Mercy in getting students interested in special education.
Sr. Anna Dien Vu, LHC, works one-on-one student. Sr. Anna Dien Vu is studying special education at Madonna University. The Divine Mercy Academy has a close relationship with Madonna University and the University of Detroit Mercy in getting students interested in special education.

While there has been a recent push in the Archdiocese of Detroit to have Catholic schools be more inclusive for students with special learning needs, Zilka said many schools face financial and logistical challenges in providing special education for students.

"When you have 25 children in the classroom, and six of them have special needs, it makes it extremely difficult for a teacher to reach that child," Zilka said. "Our parents come to us because they want their children to have a good Catholic education, they want them to know God, they want them to know love and be educated in the sacraments.”

Beyond the small class sizes, the nature of Divine Mercy Academy means the school can be accommodating when students have to miss class time for routine doctor or therapy appointments.

Brish said Divine Mercy Academy partners with Madonna University and the University of Detroit Mercy, who send students from their education programs to assist in the classroom.

“So while we are teaching them, they are also helping us and it’s been wonderful," Brish said. "We had a student-teacher from University of Detroit Mercy and a student teacher from Madonna, who did their actual student teaching here. And because of that experience, they want to be in special education.”

Divine Mercy Academy operates out of the former St. Genevieve School building in Livonia.
Divine Mercy Academy operates out of the former St. Genevieve School building in Livonia.

Brish said the unique environment at Divine Mercy Academy allows the students to thrive and enjoy learning, and it's rewarding for the teachers, too.

“Seeing the kids succeed, going from a non-reader to reading above grade level, that’s the best part of my job,” Brish said. “Having our students get accepted into Catholic high schools and being able to succeed there with minimal services — when we get those ‘ah-ha’ moments, when the lesson clicks, or we see them working together with the kids from St. Valentine’s when we have co-op days — that's why we do this."

Since enrolling in Divine Mercy Academy, Sposita said her son has seen remarkable improvement both behaviorally and academically, and she hopes other families can discover the same benefits.

“There is such a profound need for a school like this in the Archdiocese of Detroit,” Sposita said. “We couldn’t find another school in the state that offers the kinds of services this school does. That is really why it was important for me to join the board, to make people are aware of this opportunity for people to send their children. I think there is a huge opportunity for growth within this school.”

Divine Mercy Academy

To learn more about the Divine Mercy Academy, call (734) 855-4997 or visit divinemercyacademy.net.



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