By Amy Wenk

amywenk@reporternewspapers.net

When Brookhaven resident Marie Corrigan gave birth to daughter Caroline 20 years ago, doctors informed her the child might struggle in school.

“She was very premature, and so we were told there’s a high incidence of learning differences with children that are premature and to always be watching for that,” said the mother of four.

Unfortunately, the prognosis was correct.

“We did notice that as she started getting ready for kindergarten, she still had some areas of weakness academically,” said Corrigan, a native of Athens. “So we really wanted a more specialized environment for her.”

A nurse by training, she set out to address her daughter’s needs and in the process founded an institution that today teaches 135 children from kindergarten through eighth grade. The school, Sophia Academy, celebrated its 10th anniversary Jan. 16, as well as the dedication of a multipurpose gymnasium.

“It has been amazing. … Two hundred kids have come through our program and gone on to be successful after leaving Sophia Academy,” said Corrigan, who serves as founding director. “It is just an incredible thing how much has happened in 10 years.”

Corrigan has played a major role in the private school’s formation and growth. She began organizing in 1998 and one year later opened with 11 students, including her daughter, who was in fifth grade.

For the first seven years, the Judeo-Christian institution was housed in the Family Life Center at First Baptist Church of Sandy Springs on Mount Vernon Highway.

Now the school operates from its own 4,600-square-foot facility on Dresden Drive near Mercer University. Corrigan led fundraising efforts for the purchase and renovation of the building, exceeding goals by collecting $2.6 million. At slightly more than $6 million, the project was completed under budget and on time for the 2007-08 school year.

“We are excited about this location because we are able to serve so many different counties, which all seem to connect right here,” Corrigan said.

Since opening, Sophia Academy has catered to students with learning differences like processing or attention deficits and dyslexia. Corrigan said about 20 percent of the population is afflicted with such educational issues.

“I think the most important thing to know is that all the kids are just regular kids,” she said. “They all have great potential.

“Certainly some of the most creative people that our country knows — some of the most successful people — have had significant learning differences.”

To reach those students, Sophia’s educators employ a multisensory teaching approach that is in keeping with the Georgia Performance Standards. Three modes of learning are used in the classroom: kinesthetic or hands-on, visual and auditory. In traditional settings, teachers rely heavily on auditory methods like lectures.

Students “love it because they are really engaged, which means that they typically don’t get bored with what’s going on,” said Corrigan, noting the school’s 26 teachers “are excited to be creative and to really work towards tailoring their teaching presentation to each individual child.”

Other characteristics of the academy include a low student-to-teacher ratio of 8-to-1, the use of the Orton-Gillingham method for teaching spelling and reading, weekly chapel services, and daily instruction in organizational and study skills.

“Not every child here has a diagnosed learning difference,” Corrigan said. “We believe that our school is the perfect thing for any student.”

Through her work with the school and accumulation of knowledge on learning differences, Corrigan has made presentations to dozens of community organizations and has served on the boards of St. Joseph’s Hospital Mercy Wings and Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic.

In 2008, she was awarded the Governor’s Award from the Tommy Nobis Center — the top honor from the Marietta-based organization, which provides job training and employment services for people with disabilities. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and former Atlanta Falcons linebacker Tommy Nobis presented the accolade at the center’s annual ceremony last April.

Corrigan is an active volunteer with educational entities including the Marist School, Christ the King School, The Cottage School and Limestone College, the liberal arts school in South Carolina that Caroline now attends.

In the coming years, Corrigan said, she hopes to add a high school to Sophia Academy, as well as additional programs for the students.

“When you are a kid, there are only a couple places that you can go and be safe: home, church and school. I want this school to be an extension of their home, where there’s always something to do and always someone to be with,” she said. “They are only going to be a kid once, and I want that experience for them to be something that is so positive that they don’t see things as challenges. They see things as opportunities.”