EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a two-part series on special-needs children in diocesan schools and programs for faith formation/sacramental preparation.
Madeleine Gallina copes daily with Asperger syndrome, a form of autism, and also has anxiety issues. The 12-year-old acknowledged that “I can’t learn like everybody else,” but even so, she graduated from St. Rita School in Webster this past June and will soon begin seventh grade at Siena Catholic Academy in Brighton.
“I’ve had some really good teachers,” she said, adding with a smile, “I don’t like to be negative.”
Positive things also are happening for Madison Latour, 11, who has attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and apraxia, a disability that affects her motor skills. She has attended Christ the King School in Irondequoit since kindergarten and now is entering sixth grade, thanks to teachers and staff who “help you when you get stuck on stuff so you understand it,” she said. Madison added that she especially enjoys art, gym and music classes, and looks forward to attending school Masses: “We know about God, the saints.”
Madeleine and Madison reflect a growing ability on the part of diocesan Catholic schools to accommodate special-needs students who are capable — with guidance — of succeeding academically. A number of these youths are classified with such specific disabilities as autism, attention-deficit disorder and dyslexia, while others have visual and hearing impairments. Many more students have no specific diagnosis yet still require special services in order to meet state and diocesan academic standards.
Christine Smith, special-education teacher at Christ the King, and Julie Cohn, academic intervention services (AIS) coordinator at St. Rita, said young people with special needs make up approximately 10 percent of their student populations. Additionally, many principals at diocesan Catholic schools both large and small told the Catholic Courier they have at least a few special-needs students. For Smith, who has taught at Christ the King since 1981, this is a huge leap forward from earlier years when “I felt parents were pulling their kids out because we couldn’t provide the services. We’ve come a long way.”
Between improvements with in-house staffing and increased support from public-school districts as mandated by law, Catholic schools are better equipped than ever to offer special-education services, observed Anne Willkens Leach, diocesan superintendent of schools.
“Every one of our principals would be glad to sit down with every parent,” said Willkens Leach, herself a former special-education teacher and administrator.
Several diocesan schools employ their own special-education personnel — usually one or more AIS teachers — who provide tutoring, counseling and other support in such areas as study skills, organization and comprehension. Among the local initiatives are Christ the King School’s S.T.A.R.S. (Success Through Assisted Reading Support) program, and the three MAX (Meeting All Expectations) teachers on staff at Siena Catholic Academy. Both systems are designed for students who, despite having learning challenges, may not meet requirements to be classified for such special-educational services as Individualized Education Programs (IEP) or 504 plans through their local public-school districts.
The 52 special-needs students who attended St. Rita School in 2009-10 “are not all at the same level of need,” Cohn said. “Some need just a little extra support, and some have IEPs and 504 plans and need a lot of support.”
An IEP requires public-school districts to provide special education, early intervention and related services via teachers, aides and counselors, as well as speech, physical and occupational therapists. In many cases, students don’t qualify for an IEP but do for a 504, named after Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which outlaws discrimination due to disability. A 504 plan provides for such accommodations as a special study area, wheelchair ramps, extended test time and separate testing locations.
Regardless of what school a child attends, IEPs and 504s are determined on the basis of an evaluation conducted by the public-school district in which the student resides. To have a child evaluated, parents typically get a physician referral or make their own requests. Both IEPs and 504s are funded publicly, yet by law, students in private schools are eligible to receive them as well. The district where the Catholic school is located — which may be different from the student’s home district — is obligated to provide services.
Services can be provided either in or outside of a student’s regular classroom. Depending on the district, a Catholic-school student may have to be bused to a public school for services, but more often than not, public-school staff come to the Catholic school. Kathleen Coye, principal of St. Joseph School in Auburn, observed that the nature of this setup requires strong teamwork between Catholic- and public-school workers.
“Our teachers are very accommodating to these support services,” she said.
Sister Kathleen Hutsko, SSMI, principal of neighboring Ss. Peter and Paul, added that her school benefits from its relationship with the Auburn public schools.
“We do get support from our district, otherwise we would not be able to have these children in our school,” she said.
IEPs and 504s were made possible through federal and state laws passed since the 1970s to support people with disabilities. Willkens Leach said growing awareness of special-needs students is further reflected by an increasing number of Catholic-school teachers with special-education certifications, “which is a big, big help to us.” Educators also enhance their skills through supplemental training. At St. Patrick School in Owego, for example, “Our classroom teachers are very active in pursuing workshops geared to working with special-needs children,” said Paula Smith, principal.
Despite these positive steps, Willkens Leach acknowledged that, due to funding limitations, Catholic schools generally aren’t as equipped as are public schools to provide special education. As a result, she said students with “intense” needs due to such diagnoses as emotional disability or severe ADHD might not succeed in a Catholic-school setting.
In Elmira, Bernadette McClelland, principal of Holy Family Elementary School, noted that her school has some special-needs children, but can’t accommodate a student who may need a classroom setting of 8:1:1 — eight students, one teacher and one teaching assistant. She added that “we also do not have a special-education teacher on staff, so that can be challenging.”
Meanwhile, Gerald Benjamin, principal of St. Agnes School in Avon, said he has struggled to accommodate new students whose parents haven’t forewarned him that they may have learning challenges.
“I don’t have a full-time school counselor, let alone a full-time school psychologist to meet on a five-day basis and purposefully address these students’ needs,” he said.
Part of the family
On the other hand, Benjamin noted that St. Agnes does have special-education students from a number of communities. He said he works closely with special-education departments in the students’ home districts in order to give a child every chance of succeeding.
“It would be a shame for a principal maybe hearing a particular diagnosis, then throwing up his hands and saying, ‘We can’t do that.’ At least I try to be sensitive to every child. They’re all God’s children, and I’m most respectful of that,” said Benjamin, who taught special education 50 years ago when it was a relatively new field.
Special-needs children who do enter Catholic schools can count on a sense of inclusiveness to enhance social as well as academic development. For instance, Kathleen Maslanka, AIS coordinator at St. Pius Tenth School in Chili, said students under her guidance attend all the school Masses and lead morning prayer. In addition, “Our recent school production of ‘Tom Sawyer’ included several of our classified students, some performing in leading roles,” she noted.
“We go out of our way to treat our (special-education) students in the same manner as nonspecial-needs students,” said Pauline DeCann, principal of St. Michael School in Newark. DeCann added that the school emphasizes “that God loves them and that we all have special gifts to share with one another.”
Lisa Dirlam, principal of St. Ann School in Hornell, echoed that sentiment.
“Special needs or not, we try to help our students see that every child is created by God, and everyone is created differently, but we treat each other like Jesus would treat everyone, with kindness and compassion,” she said.
“They are definitely part of our school family,” Sister Hutsko said of the special-needs students at Ss. Peter and Paul.
Timothy Leahy, principal of Siena Catholic Academy, observed that providing early academic and social support can give a child a solid foundation for succeeding in upper grades and adulthood. Leahy said that his junior high school as well as Rochester-area Catholic high schools do provide special services as needed, but pointed out that as they age, many special-needs students naturally require less support and move more toward independence.
One of Leahy’s incoming seventh-graders seems poised to do exactly that. Fresh off her graduation from St. Rita, Madeleine has reached one milestone and now is eager to reach the next level at Siena.
“I feel like I’m going to be comfortable. I feel I’m mature enough,” she stated.
Next month: Special needs and religious education/sacramental preparation.