Merlene Davis: For 120 years, Stewart Home School has promoted dignity and respect for students

Herald-Leader columnistSeptember 28, 2013 

Despite what the GPS was indicating, I was a bit hesitant to turn onto the lane winding beyond the black fencing and manicured landscape.

I was looking for the Stewart Home School, a residential campus on the outskirts of Frankfort for intellectually challenged youth and adults that has been operational for 120 years.

The entrance I was seeing looked more like that of a college campus or recreational resort. It surely could not be the grounds of a school.

But indeed, it was.

That first impression and others I had before my arrival on campus were soon dispelled by Dr. John P. Stewart, 86, the great-grandson of the school's founder, Dr. John Quincy Adams Stewart, and who still plays a hands-on role at the school.

Not only was the campus scenic, peaceful, and unexpected, but the extent to which the school educated and nurtured a population too often ignored was also unforeseen.

"He was way ahead of the times," John Stewart said of his great-grandfather. "He believed all people should be treated with respect. He assumed they could learn, and that is the basic philosophy behind our belief."

There are 25 teachers and 165 staff members for 355 students who range in age from 12 to mature adults at the Stewart Home School.

Until he died three months ago, the oldest student had been Tom Ayers, 91. He had come to the school when he was 8 years old.

"I grew up playing with him," Stewart said. "He is buried in our old family plot because he was family."

Some students are there for a short time and others for longer periods, depending on what their families want them to achieve. The school operates on a three-semester schedule.

The students have various learning styles and diagnoses including autism, Down syndrome, Fragile X syndrome and Williams syndrome. There are basic reading and math classes, physical fitness, and GED courses, music, art and equine programs. Some students transition to self sufficiency, working jobs on campus or in Frankfort.

Students perform in the choral group and bell choir in Frankfort. And they attend events such as those at the Norton Center for the Arts at Centre College, Purdue University football games, the movies, and bowling. The Special Olympics is a big deal on campus.

Students take longer excursions such as Caribbean cruises and visits to Disney World twice a year. They will be traveling to San Antonio soon.

Sandra Bell, director of the school, said the students are from 38 states and nine foreign countries. While most are from Tennessee, Ohio and Florida, 35 are from Kentucky. There are 10 residence halls for women and eight for men. Stewart said as far back as he can remember, women have outnumbered men at the school.

The school serves 1,500 meals a day.

Tuition, room and board cost $2,835 a month, with additional charges for some extracurricular activities. The school receives no state or federal funding, so there are no scholarships, Bell explained.

Students can make home visits and families can visit the school as often as they want. About 100 of the students have their own computers and have learned to Skype and use Facetime to communicate with their families.

Students are required to have some form of medical insurance, which avails them of the services of two psychiatrists, a neurologist, an orthopedic consultant, a cardiologist, a dentist, and a nurse.

Stewart's son, Dr. John D. Stewart of Lexington, spends Mondays at the school with patients, ensuring a fifth generation of the family will continue the mission which began in 1893 when 10 families asked Dr. John Q.A. Stewart, an authority on the intellectually challenged, to start a private school for their children.

He had served as the superintendent of the Kentucky Institution for the Education and Training of Feeble-minded Children for 16 years under four governors.

He started Stewart Home School on the former campus of the old Kentucky Military Institute, where he had attended high school. Throughout the years, the family has added surrounding land so that the school now sits on 850 acres.

Unfortunately, the founder lived only five years after opening the school.

Information about the school has been "pretty much word-of-mouth," Bell said, and it is just about at capacity.

Only one new student is welcomed at a time so that the staff and teachers can concentrate fully on his or her assimilation and adjustment, Bell explained. "We love our students," she said.

"We believe they all are capable of learning," John P. Stewart said, "and should be treated with dignity and respect."

That's how the school started 120 years ago, and it seems to be the philosophy today as well. There was nothing about the classrooms, the dorms, the students, or the campus that would make me think otherwise.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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