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All four Arlington diocesan high schools now offer programs for special needs students

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A mission has been accomplished — all four diocesan high schools have a program allowing students with intellectual and developmental disabilities the opportunity to receive a Catholic education. 

The inaugural Diocesan Peer Mentor Leadership Institute, hosted by Marymount University, took place in Arlington Oct. 30. The institute was a collaborative event between the diocesan high schools to bring peer mentors with students with disabilities together to learn more and collaborate on their work. From each school, 10 peer mentors, inclusion leaders and a teacher attended the event. Marymount graduate students led the breakout sessions. 

“We believe our mentors are the inclusion leaders of the future,” said Susan Rinaldi, director of Expanded Services at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington. “We hope they will go forth to help facilitate greater inclusion for individuals with disabilities in society at large, in their future destinations for college, the workplace, their churches and communities.”

Rinaldi said the commitment to providing inclusive education to students with disabilities is unifying.

“At the high school level, our peer mentors make our inclusive services possible,” Rinaldi said. “Peer mentor programs are implemented differently at each school, but they have a common role in each school, working one-on-one with a student for the school year, assisting and supporting the student in a given class, and forming friendships.” 

Claire Whitworth, a junior at O’Connell, became a mentor “to help people with special needs expand their knowledge and learn more about life,” she said. “The fact that we can teach them things that may keep their whole lives is really cool.”

“One of the things that I focused on when I got here is giving and empowering the diocesan schools with the tools and strategies they need, so we all can collaborate together,” said Clara Hauth, assistant professor of special education at Marymount. “Our goal is to get the students inspired, excited and to have some knowledge so that when they are walking inside the classrooms and working with their buddies that they are confident and excited to embrace that connection.”  

Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria is the final diocesan high school to incorporate the program, which will be fully operational in the 2020 school year. 

“This is a natural development of a program we are already doing. We are already serving students with special needs and learning differences. That’s an important piece to this puzzle,” said J-Lynn Van Pelt, director of special services at Ireton. “They make up almost 19 percent of our overall population but now we are working toward making sure we improve that programming for current students. We can now open our doors to a wider variety of students with needs.”

Ireton is adding a De Sales Program for students with specific diagnosed learning disabilities, as well as furthering development of their academic support program and developing an Options Program. 

Leo Alonso, Porto Charities president, said the Options Program has been shown to work. Porto Charities is a nonprofit that assists people with developmental disabilities through fundraising, resources, assistance and education. Alonso said having the programs in the high schools serves the entire diocese.

Bishop Michael F. Burbidge spoke in an interview with Relevant Radio Oct. 21 about the diocese’s priority on welcoming students with disabilities. 

“A major emphasis for us right now is we have 14 of our 41 schools who embrace and integrate students with learning challenges and gifts into our community. There’s not just a space for these students in our schools they are integrated into the entire community. They walk through the day just like any other student in the classroom, in the cafeteria, the extracurricular activities,” he said. “They are part of who we are and of everything that we do. A goal that I have set before our Catholic educators is in a timely way, I want all our schools to be able to do that. We know that when we do, we are the ones blessed when we welcome these students with special gifts and challenges into our community. They bring out the best in the other students and the best in us.”

Elliott can be reached at elizabeth.elliott@catholicherald.com or Twitter @eelliottACH.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019