More Catholic schools welcoming special needs students

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For years, Josie Blessard dreaded school.

The soft-spoken teenager has an auditory processing disorder, dyslexia and memory and retention difficulties - a combination of learning disabilities that elicited peers' taunts in her public school classes.

"I had panic attacks and came to school crying," said Josie.

All that changed last fall when she enrolled as a freshman at Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington.

"Now she eagerly jumps out of bed in the morning," said her father, David Blessard. "I honestly feel like it's a miracle. It is truly amazing what the school is doing, that they care so much."

Aided by O'Connell's newly formed Expanded Services, Josie joins a growing number of special needs students nationwide who enjoy the academic, social and spiritual benefits of Catholic schools.

Michael Boyle, a Chicago-based special education advocate, said the trend allows the church to honor its mission and the Gospel message. "It is us living out our DNA as Catholic educators," he said. "To me inclusion is not just a schooling piece, it's a church piece. It challenges us to ask, 'How can we model acceptance, love and inclusion? How can we wrap our arms around these children in faith?'"

'No separate church'

Church history is filled with mandates to educate all children. Vatican II's "Declaration on Christian Education" states that all the baptized "have a right to a Christian education." In 1978, the U.S. bishops wrote in their pastoral statement on people with disabilities that there "can be no separate church for people with disabilities. We are one flock that serves a single shepherd."

Though Catholic schools have a history of admitting students with special needs on a case-by-case basis, until recently, many struggled to provide an education for children with intellectual and substantial learning disabilities. There are a variety of reasons, including increased diagnoses, but the most common hurdles are related to money and fear of the unknown, said Lynn Hire, executive director of the nonprofit Foundation for Inclusive Religious Education in Kansas City, Mo. FIRE promotes inclusion through advocacy and financial support to Catholic schools.

A federal civil rights law states that private schools may not exclude "a handicapped person" if he or she can be accommodated "with minor adjustments." But unlike public schools, private elementary and high schools are not required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to enroll all students with special needs. And while some federal monies are available for private school special education students, funds are limited and inconsistent.

The cost of educating students with special needs at Catholic schools varies widely based on region, Hire said. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for special education teachers in the United States is about $56,000 a year. Funds also may be needed to equip a resource room, provide adaptive technology and hire a paraprofessional for one-on-one support. Peer mentoring, integral to many inclusive schools, is free but priceless. Peer mentoring builds "not just token relationships but often authentic friendships that endure," said Hire.

Boyle, who directs the Andrew M. Greeley Center for Catholic Education at Loyola University of Chicago and is a National Catholic Partnership on Disability board member, acknowledged the financial burdens many Catholic schools face but said they cannot be used as an excuse.

"How can we say we accept you as a Catholic until it costs too much money?" said Boyle.

"The biggest obstacle to inclusion is getting your staff and leadership on board," Hire said. "It's not that the money will just follow; it's not that simple and money is critical. But it is secondary to attitudinal shifts that say inclusion is another opportunity to live our faith."

FIRE has raised $2.4 million to foster inclusion in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph since its founding in 1996 and is developing a consulting structure to share its model with other dioceses.

Similar to FIRE, the Catholic Coalition for Special Education funds the expansion of special education instruction and programs in D.C. and Maryland. Similar fledgling organizations are forming around the country.

Dioceses without such funding use a mix of creative strategies. "One of the beautiful things about Catholic schools is their commitment to mission and their creativity," said Boyle. "They know how to make a dollar stretch."

Arlington is one of the most inclusive dioceses in the country, according to the National Catholic Board on Full Inclusion, a California-based organization that highlights inclusive schools, provides resources and support, and advocates for full inclusion in Catholic schools. Out of 195 dioceses/archdioceses in United States, Arlington is one of 14 listed by the organization as inclusive.

Five Arlington diocesan schools have comprehensive special education services or programs: O'Connell, Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax, Saint John Paul the Great Catholic High School in Dumfries, Holy Spirit School in Annandale and St. Mark School in Vienna. They receive funding from a number of sources, including local parishioners, the Virginia Knights of Columbus and Porto Charities, a nonprofit assisting people with developmental and intellectual disabilities. Porto Charities has provided more than $1 million to local schools since Paul VI first welcomed students with special needs in 1998.

"Once you do it, once you have inclusion at a school, you realize it's not so scary," said Beth Foraker, founder and director of the inclusion board. "There is no reason that (children with special needs) cannot be able to be part of our world … in every way."

Benefiting all

The day six years ago that Maria Eisenberg discovered her daughter Elizabeth, who has Down syndrome, could attend a new program for special needs students at St. Mark was "one of the best days of our lives," she said.

To send a student to a Christ-centered school that sees a child with special needs not as broken but as sacred and holy is a gift, said both Eisenberg and David Blessard.

Staff and students at Paul VI, where Elizabeth now is a senior, really "walk the walk," Eisenberg said. "There's a mission of compassion and acceptance that comes from the top and trickles down."

The gratitude felt by the Eisenbergs and Blessards is being experienced by an increasing number of families.

"There has definitely been growth in special education," said Sister Dale McDonald, director of public policy and educational research for the National Catholic Educational Association.

In 2013, 46 percent of U.S. Catholic elementary schools had a resource teacher for special needs students, up from 28 percent in 2001-02, according to NCEA. The organization does not have similar data for high schools.

NCEA is supporting inclusion with workshops, webinars and specialized committees, among other efforts.

The growing number of inclusive schools is due in part to the ripple effects of successful integration and Pope Francis' challenge to embrace people on the margins, said Foraker.

"An inclusive education finds a place for all and does not select in an elitist way the beneficiaries of its efforts," the pope told parents in Rome last December.

Attitudes toward individuals with special needs also have shifted to what they can do, rather than what they can't, and "considerable research supports the fact that inclusion benefits all," said Hire.

Students with intellectual and substantial learning disabilities can be "an agent of catechesis in schools," Boyle added.

"We were at a tipping point before Pope Francis, but he sets a beautiful example of why we need to welcome all of God's children," Hire said. "Integrating these students is not just a leap of faith; this is what we should be doing to support the best education for everyone."

Find out more

National Catholic Board on Full Inclusion

National Catholic Partnership on Disability

Catholic Coalition for Special Education

Foundation for Inclusive Religious Education

Porto Charities

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016