Combining Tenacity and Whimsy to Create Something Extraordinary: The Story of St. Coletta and Sharon Brady Raimo ’69, ’94
By Aimee Dolaway Olivo ’99
As she walked me out, we met a group of students. This was the first time they had seen her today and there were smiles, hugs and high-fives all around. “My job is better than being Madonna,” she said, “all I do is show up and they are all over me!”
This is Sharon Brady Raimo ’69, ’94, CEO of The St. Coletta Special Education Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., an educator, an entrepreneur and a Trinity woman, though not necessarily in that order.
So, let’s go back to the beginning.
Sharon Brady Raimo came to Trinity in 1965 because it was “the place for a Catholic girl who wanted to go to college in Washington.” At Trinity, she majored in English and made friends for a lifetime. It is these close friendships that she credits as the most important things she took away from Trinity. “When you can say you’ve had friends for 40 years…that is an amazing thing. Those women have been there for me for every single thing that has ever happened to me. They are my base of operations. I can’t imagine my life without them.” In fact, Raimo recently found out that her Trinity classmates raised $25,000 to name the CEO’s office at St. Coletta in her honor. “I was so incredibly touched and this is an example of how Trinity affects your whole life, not just your four years at college.”
After graduating from Trinity in 1969, Raimo taught high school English in public and private schools in the Washington area and later, after earning her master’s degree at Trinity, began teaching special education. As a stay-at-home mom after the birth of her daughter, Sarah, Raimo became actively involved with the Association for Retarded Citizens (ARC) in Washington. She also became a surrogate parent – and strong advocate – for two boys with profound mental retardation, eventually suing the District on behalf of one. After the birth of her son, Peter, Raimo continued to stay home for several years, eventually going back to teaching part-time. When the principal of her children’s public elementary school, Veola Jackson, asked Raimo to come on board as an administrator, she agreed. Raimo credits Jackson with “teaching me everything I know about how to run a school.” In 1993 Raimo was given the opportunity to bring together her passion for education and advocacy for those with severe disabilities: she became principal of St. Coletta of Greater Washington, a school serving students with mental retardation, autism and multiple
In 2003, Washingtonian magazine named Raimo a Washingtonian of the Year, writing that in 1993, “St. Coletta of Greater Washington had 19 students, a budget of $210,000, and a lack of leadership. Sharon Brady Raimo, a former teacher, fundraiser, and advocate, [took] the principal’s job – and promptly turned the place around.”
Upon taking the job, and with her two children still in grade school, Raimo returned to Trinity in the School of Education’s master of science in administration program. Very different than her traditional undergraduate experience, Raimo deeply appreciated the fact that the program was friendly to women who had full-time jobs and families.
Students at St. Coletta are from the Washington-metro area and are between the ages of three and twenty-two years. To be admitted, they must be diagnosed with mental retardation, autism or multiple disabilities. Many also have secondary disabling conditions such as speech language disorders, vision, hearing, orthopedic and/or health impairments. Many times, says Raimo, in the public schools, these children get second best of everything. Their “self-contained” classroom in the public schools would be in the basement, next to the boiler room, Raimo explains. Imagine an autistic student in a public school: disembodied voices speak through the PA system; every 40 minutes loud bells ring and everyone gets up and moves around. “Then people say the students have behavior problems – the system created those problems!”
Over the years, Raimo moved St. Coletta several times – always on the search for a better space. Each time, though, she had to take an existing building and make it work for these special students. “As we got better buildings, we were just retrofitting. It was just a Band-Aid. Since 1999 I’ve been looking for space in the District to build from the ground up, to really do it right.” With a brand-new and quite funky building on the corner of Independence Avenue and 19th Street in southeast Washington, Raimo has finally done it right.
After years of wrangling with the D.C. government and neighborhood associations, wading through bureaucratic red tape and changes in the D.C. Public Schools leadership, Raimo often felt like she was taking three steps forward and one step back. Throughout all of it, however, she remained true to the vision and dedicated to the students – whom she calls her clients. And that dedication paid off.
Designed by one of the nation’s top architects, Michael Graves (perhaps best known by pop culture as the designer of an innovative housewares line for Target), the new St. Coletta Special Education Public Charter “Hearing ‘my school,’ ‘my classroom’ makes me want to
School is unlike anything Washington has ever seen. The 19th Street side of the building has red and cream colored bricks and a row house feel, designed to mirror the classic D.C. row houses across the street. Turn the corner onto Independence, however, and everything changes. Suddenly, the building becomes five “houses” in shapes ranging from a triangle to a cylinder in bright colors like blue, yellow, and green. It is stunning.
But, that is just the beginning.
Step inside and the fun continues. Beautiful and bright colors are everywhere. Sun streams in through skylights and large windows. This is a far cry from the basement classroom next to the boiler room. On the contrary, it is the best of the best for some very exceptional students.
When they held the open house for parents, hundreds attended. Raimo said, “They were thrilled. There were so many tears. These parents had to fight for everything for their kids. Now they knew their kids were getting the best.”
Even more important than the whimsical colors is the quality of the facilities. With obvious – and well-deserved – pride, Raimo says, “I don’t think there is anything like this in the country. Most schools try to retrofit buildings. When you have the opportunity to build something from the ground up, you really think about every little thing and what is going to be best for the kids.”
Indeed, every single element was designed with the special needs of the students in mind. There is a state-of-the art hydrotherapy room, a sensory room and special art and music studios. The gymnasium has special swings for the autistic children. The students are divided by age into “houses” which are self-contained units designed to provide each group with their own small, safe community. There are no bells, no PA system. Everything is calm with wide-open spaces. Except, however, when students need to be in a smaller, darker space to calm down, then there’s that, too. “The goal,” says Raimo, “is to make them feel calm, safe, protected.”
And yet, as fabulous as this new facility is, Raimo’s goal is to take the students out of it as much as possible. “Hearing ‘my school,’ ‘my classroom’ makes me want to scream. The community…the world is your school. You need to take your clients out into the world and bring the best into your classroom. Take advantage of the resources you have right outside the school door.” For example, St. Coletta’s older students travel to the store to buy groceries and make their own meals. They also participate in “job sampling” and learn to navigate public transportation. The goal is to teach life skills so that these students can be as independent as possible.
It is important for St. Coletta students to go out into the world not only for themselves, but for the rest of us, too. “If the world would only pay attention, they have a lot to teach,” says Raimo. Initially, many of the staff members at the vocational training sites are nervous. But, when Raimo talks to them later, they tell her, “I am so glad so and so is here. He makes our day happy. He makes this place a happy place.” St. Coletta’s students demonstrate virtues such as patience, persistence and forgiveness. They don’t give up. “Would you try one million times to learn
to say a word?” Raimo asks. “They do.”
Certainly Raimo is an educator. But, she thinks of herself as a business person, an entrepreneur. That’s her advice for students in Trinity’s education programs and for teachers today. “Being an educator, you should think of yourself as being an entrepreneur. Act as if you’re going to start up a fabulous business. Put things together in a way that things haven’t been done before.” She continues, “the children are your clients. They are the people that have to be put first. The staff is your service personnel. The students deserve to get the best every hour of every day.”
The best. That’s just what this Trinity woman has given to the amazing students at St. Coletta. In the spirit of Trinity’s founders, Sharon Brady Raimo saw the need to provide better educational opportunities for an under served population and had the vision and tenacity – along with a touch of whimsy – to create something extraordinary.