FRANKFORT Imagine you have an adult child with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism, or another intellectual disability. Federal mandates ensure that your community provides some sort of learning opportunities, but what if they aren’t a good fit? What then? Where do you go and what happens when you are no longer able to care for your special needs adult dependent?
For thousands of students, the answer to those questions for more than a century has been the Stewart Home & School in Frankfort, Ky. Dr. John Quincy Adams Stewart founded the Stewart Home & School in 1893, and it has been part of the family ever since, owned and operated by five successive generations. Currently, John D. Stewart, MD, serves as the campus’ medical director in addition to practicing as a surgeon in Lexington. “We have an underappreciated need in our society for the care of the intellectually disabled,” Stewart says. “It is our mission and our proven track record to provide the best opportunities for the intellectually disabled. That’s what we’re here for.”
Stewart Home & School is a residential school akin to a boarding school or small college. There, people with intellectual disabilities – most over the age of 18 – live and learn with their peers on a campus that includes 18 dormitories and 260,000 square feet of building space. Approximately 350 students live on the campus, which has 165 staff members, many of whom live on or near the campus, which is operational 365 days a year. The current resident population represents 38 states and half a dozen foreign countries.
From a medical perspective, Stewart sees the school providing much-needed answers for many physicians. “If you’re a primary care physician, pediatrician, psychiatrist, or neurologist with a developmentally disabled child that you’re taking care of, the question becomes, where is the proper place for this person to be as he or she gets a little bit older,” Stewart says. “We’re not a hospital or nursing home. But we definitely serve a healthcare need.”
Some residents of the Stewart Home & School are on psychiatric medication or medication for seizure disorders. The school operates its own infirmary and has a nurse practitioner, and Dr. Stewart has a clinic on campus one evening a week and is in touch with the staff on a daily basis. In addition, specialists in psychiatry and neurology visit and hold clinics on a monthly basis.
The Stewart Home & School operates much differently from a group home, the more widespread solution of choice for many communities across the country. In group homes, adults with intellectual disabilities live together in small groups of people, working together to maintain the home with supervision from staff. The intent is for the residents to be more immersed in the community.
Sandy Bell, Director of the Stewart Home & School, says there are misconceptions about how the school operates compared to a group home. “There are people who are ideologically opposed to settings like ours,” she says. “If you have more than a few people staying in one place, there are those who feel that’s segregation and that you’re somehow denying the right to be included in our culture and our society. Most people fail to see this as more like a boarding school or small college. But you can’t help but see that when you come here.”
A Different Approach
Taking a different approach from the group home model, the philosophy of the Stewart Home & School is focused on providing an atmosphere in which the students can be comfortable, confident, and safe. “We are here to provide an environment of peers,” Stewart says. “They can be with their friends with the same mental and physical capability. They can compete with them and enjoy things with them on a level playing field.”
They also are far from sheltered. There are daily activities and trips, including amusement parks, ballparks, movies, and concerts. And there is growing connectivity with the central Kentucky community, with people in the community working at the school and residents from the school volunteering at places like the humane society and soup kitchens.
That exposure will only help with a couple of the school’s biggest hurdles – getting the word out that it exists and exactly what it is. “Our name makes people think we’re a home school, and they don’t understand how that works with special needs students,” says Barry Banker, CEO of the Stewart Home & School and Stewart’s brother-in-law. “We have to explain that we’re like a residential prep school or college for intellectually disabled students of all ages.”
The Stewart Home & School is a private, for-profit entity. They carry no debt and solicit no donations. Tuition to attend the school is a little over $36,000 per year, and the school operates with a budget of around $14.5 million. That comes as a surprise to many. “We operate in the black and earnings are devoted to the school,” says Banker.
Planned new construction and renovations include a new clinic, a renovation of the pre-academic space and a new gym floor. “Every decision we make is for the happiness, safety, and well-being of our students,” says Banker.
“A misperception is that because we’re in Kentucky, which is a wonderful state, folks from other regions wonder ‘How on earth could a facility in Kentucky be what our child needs? How could they provide it?’” Banker says. “All we ask is that they come and see us.”
Once visitors see the facility, the vision of a boarding school or small college becomes much clearer. And that is by design, says Bell. “We hope that everything we do is on the same level as a top boarding school,” she says. “We hope that our students have the very best. Most of our families want that. They have been able to provide college experiences for their other children, and they have a sense that their child with a disability deserves that too.”
“Parents ask us, ‘What’s your admission criteria?’ We tell them, ‘It’s you, because you know your child.’ You come into this place, and you’re going to look at everything through the lens of your child.”
Residents of the Stewart Home & School have access to a variety of classes, a library, a pre-academic computer lab for those students who don’t read yet, and another lab for the academic students. Physical activities include exercise classes, horseback riding, swimming, yoga, dance and music classes, Bible studies, and many more. The focus is on life-long learning.
“The danger in any long-term care situation is that it’s not exciting,” Bell says. “Most people when they come are fearful that this will be depressing. That’s the last thing we want. We want our students to be excited about their lives every day.”
The future of Stewart Home & School rests in continuity and connectivity, says Stewart. “Father Time forces generational transfer on all of us. Our mission gives us the strength and the foundation to create continuity. This team has been together for a long time running the administration, the business, and educational aspects of the school. We’re ready for the next step.”
OUR FOCUS IS PROVIDING A LIFE-LONG EXPERIENCE OF LEARNING. – SANDY BELL, DIRECTOR
WE ARE HERE TO PROVIDE AN ENVIRONMENT OF PEERS. – DR. JOHN D. STEWART