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St. Louis School includes all students in the classroom

First slide

When second grader Matthew Reeder rolled through the doors of St. Louis School in Alexandria in 2014, he had no idea his presence was paving the way for students with special needs. Matt suffers from a type of cerebral palsy that caused severe physical disabilities. He was wheelchair-bound and non-verbal, requiring an iPad to speak. 

His road to St. Louis began after two years in the public school system. By the end of the first grade, it was apparent to his mom, Trisha Reeder, that it was not the best fit. Matt’s two older siblings were attending St. Louis School so she decided to ask then-Principal Kathleen McNutt if there were any options for her son. 

While it was unknown territory for McNutt and her staff, they were willing to try. 

Since they did not have the program set up specifically for students with special needs they looked at what it would take to keep Matt in the classroom with the general student population, known as full inclusion.

After assessing his needs and looking at full inclusion in schools in other dioceses, the school’s “yes” came. Matt tested into second grade and was accepted on the condition that he have a health aid provided by his parents to assist him with some of his physical challenges such as eating and using the restroom.

The news was such a relief for Reeder, who immediately saw a change in Matt.

“As soon as he started here I could tell there was a huge weight lifted off his shoulders,” said Reeder. “They treat him like the rest of the class. I was nervous that other parents would say, ‘it takes away from  my kid's education because it takes the teacher extra time.’ But never once has that been the case. It has actually been the exact opposite. So many parents have been so grateful that we allow all children here and that their children have been able to work with someone who learns differently and has taught them new lessons in life that they would not get otherwise.”

Matt is now in seventh grade and loves computer class and his friends, who have been with him since second grade. He is able to walk from class to class, only needing his wheelchair to travel between school buildings. While he is able to traverse the elementary landscape side by side with his peers, he does have a unique education plan. He excels in most subjects but is still at a second-grade level in math. Instead of taking world languages, he is working with his resource teacher on more vocational and skill-based lessons.

This year, he began giving presentations to the younger grades about students with disabilities. 

“It has been amazing to see what he has been able to do,” said McNutt. “He is an inspiration.” 

Over the past five years, Matt’s success and the school’s ‘we can do it’ attitude toward special needs have led to a complete mindset change. According to St. Louis Principal Anne Dyke, the school currently has more than 70 students with individualized education plans and three other students with severe physical and mental disabilities. One of whom is an energetic kindergartner with Down syndrome. 

Dyke is hoping their budget will allow them to grow their resource team and hire a reading specialist. She believes this will not only benefit students with special needs but the general student population as well.  

“Students having contact with people with disabilities helps them see the beauty in all students,” said Dyke. “They are going to be employers and government leaders and have roles of leadership. They will be looking at the entire population without prejudice because they have interacted with people with special needs.”

While Dyke continues to expand full inclusion at the elementary level, McNutt has taken it to high school. 

As the new head of school at Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria, McNutt is sharing the lessons she learned from Matt with faculty, staff and students. With some new initiatives already taking effect in her first year at Ireton, she takes comfort in knowing that students like Matt will have a place to thrive after elementary school. 

Kassock is a freelancer in Fredericksburg.

 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020