‘Let’s Walk the Talk’: The Importance of Accommodating Students With Special Needs
Catholic schools and organizations work to include all young learners.
All young learners should be accepted, accommodated and fully welcomed, including those with special needs.
But only 2% of Catholic schools in the nation accept students with disabilities, according to Beth Foraker, the founder and director of the National Catholic Board on Full Inclusion.
Consequently, Catholics need to ensure that they’re doing everything they can to foster a welcoming environment for families of children with disabilities and learning differences, she told the Register.
Top challenges for Catholic schools include small budgets, limited staff and lack of preparation through general teacher-preparation programs, according to Colleen McCoy-Cejka, a co-founder of Inclusion Solutions, which helps Catholic schools in eight states meet the needs of children with disabilities.
The following are among the schools nationwide that are opening their doors to students with disabilities.
Nativity Catholic School
El Monte, California, transitional kindergarten through eighth grade
Sister Stacy Reineman of the Sisters of St. Louis, the principal of Nativity Catholic School, says including students with disabilities involves allowing God to take the lead and staying focused on Jesus’ mission instead of fixating on states’ grade-level standards or expected standardized-test performance.
“In the Gospels, Jesus clearly said, ‘Let the children come to me … for to such belongs the kingdom of God.’ Jesus did not specify that the child must fit in a certain category determined by the state’s expectations. … I truly believe that, when God sends me a student, God will provide all we need to make it work,” Sister Stacy told the Register. “I make it clear to parents that I don’t have all the answers but that we will discover them as we journey together.”
Often, when she least expects it, she receives a check. Ultimately, however, being inclusive doesn’t necessarily require additional funding. Instead, it comes down to the teachers’ and parents’ passion and teamwork, she explained. Apps have been among the resources they’ve used. National organizations and foundations have also been supportive, she added. These apps include the Lexia literacy app that works with kids at their ability level and works well for children with Down syndrome, Sister Stacy explained, adding that Mathseeds does the same for math; ALEKS is also for math, above the third-grade level and based on ability levels, too.
Sister Stacy told the Register that she has seen kindness burst forth in classrooms when students see a need, and parents of neurotypical children have told her repeatedly they believe their children are blessed to be in a classroom with students with disabilities. Accepting students with disabilities helps everyone in the school community grow into the best version of themselves, she concluded.
In a video showcasing the school’s commitment to students with Down syndrome, second-grade teacher Laura Armenta relates the blessings of teaching these special students.
“In the last six years, I’ve taught about six students with Down syndrome,” Armenta said. “I learned what works for one student works for all of them.”
Fifth-grade teacher Chaylaine Gutierrez said she thinks the only training needed is to have empathy and patience.
St. Mary-Basha Catholic School
Chandler, Arizona, preschool through eighth grade
Principal Katie Lyon’s school considers each individual situation to see if they can work with the family to provide the best education possible for the child. The school receives a few candidates each year who have various needs or require accommodations.
Catholic education involves recognizing that each student has unique gifts and challenges and is created in the likeness of God, explained Lyon.
While the school’s still in the infancy stage regarding working with students with special needs, they’ve managed to work with families to accept students who need one-on-one aides, Lyon said. Staff wrote a grant to fund a ramp so a student who uses a wheelchair can more easily participate in gym class and turned one of its staff restrooms into one the student can use with an aide to offer privacy. They made uniform adjustments for a student who’s unable to use a hand and provided technology for children who need voice-to-text features or texts on audio. They’re also expanding parking-lot accessibility to accommodate parents with disabilities.
The school has a resource room with a speech pathologist and reading interventionist. Students at the local Catholic high school tutor St. Mary-Basha students, and the school’s student-service plan coordinator and other staff are completing related professional development.
Lyon said Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, a state-funded savings account available to some children, will make a difference. The school helps parents connect with vendors with this funding.
Churches affiliated with schools could also help fundraise for more support in classrooms, and dioceses can establish special-education departments to help schools, teachers and children with disabilities access support, she suggested.
St. Jerome Academy
Hyattsville, Maryland, kindergarten through eighth grade
At Principal Daniel Flynn’s school, students have access to environment, behavior, instruction and assessment accommodations. Examples include fidget spinners and other toys that might aid with distraction or stress, checklists, preferential seating, wait time, simplification of multistep directions, audiobooks, graphic organizers that can help students visualize concepts, and access to teacher or peer notes. Students who haven’t been able to memorize all math facts but can otherwise perform at grade level may have access to calculators or number charts. Teachers can check that students attempt all responses on assessments, repeat directions or have assessments read to them. Students with fine-motor difficulties use a scribe.
Teachers collaborate with other staff in a whole-school approach to helping students progress and enabling teachers to more effectively meet all students’ needs. The school received a grant in 2022 that allowed it to expand its resource department, staff training and materials for students, strengthening enrollment growth.
What’s challenging are limitations of time and staffing, as needs continue to grow. But staff remain optimistic, Flynn told the Register.
“The school community must understand that Catholic schools may serve students with disabilities differently than our public-school counterparts, but we are not in any way deficient in our ability to serve our students. On the contrary, I would confidently say we often accomplish more with far fewer resources,” Flynn explained. “Our team of parents and school community must work toward creative solutions to serve all students.”
Modeling the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ guidance on sacraments for people with disabilities, schools should consult with the students and their families before they make accessibility decisions, Flynn said.
“Giving the students as much accessibility as possible should be the goal, and the adaptations made should become an ordinary part of school life,” he added. “Students with disabilities or learning differences should not be placed in a box, with preconceived notions of what’s best for them. Treating those students with dignity requires that they are seen as individuals, with unique needs and capabilities.”
Divine Mercy Academy
Madison, Wisconsin, infant-fifth grade Montessori
Serving children with special needs is central to the mission of Divine Mercy Academy because it’s integral to the Catholic faith, Head of School Katie Haun told the Register. The school’s first hire was its special-education director, and it brought on a special-education teacher this year.
“Investing upfront in this commitment has helped us to thrive and to serve children well,” Haun told the Register. “Providing specialized services can be very challenging for Catholic schools; however, investing in special education bears fruit for all children.”
Maria Montessori, the founder of the school’s educational model, included serving children with exceptional needs in her work, and in the Montessori classroom, children with special needs have the freedom to be themselves while learning alongside peers, Haun explained.
The school works closely with the local school district and agencies. The Diocese of Madison’s Apostolate for Persons With Disabilities, Knights of Columbus councils and benefactors have also been supportive.
St. Ann Catholic School
Nashville, Tennessee, preschool-eighth grade
St. Ann Catholic School, which has about 200 students total, can accept up to nine or 10 students with intellectual and developmental disabilities through its “Hand in Hand” program, which is a full-inclusion model that mimics the program at the local Catholic high school, according to Principal Anna Rumfola.
While the school, which has about 42 students with a learning-disability diagnosis, can’t accommodate students who need 1:1 throughout the day or who are in preschool, it has two full-time special-education teachers. Students are in the regular classroom the whole day, apart from reading, math and English (or phonics for the younger grades). For those subjects, students receive 1:1 support, either within or outside of the classroom, depending on grade level and the student’s needs. The school also has an interventionist who works with students with learning disabilities who need extra support in reading or math, along with a guidance counselor who helps students with 504 plans. A 504 plan is similar to an individualized education plan, or IEP. The plan outlines what accommodations a school will provide a student so they can learn with their peers. Some students with insurance or other financial support have appointments during the day with behavioral therapists.
When a new student with special needs applies, the school sends its special-education teachers to the child’s current school to observe how that school is addressing the student’s needs and understand the student’s current daily school life. The student then attends St. Ann’s for a couple of days so school staff can get to know the child in St. Ann’s classrooms and among school students before the family discusses with school staff whether a transfer is possible and what resources are appropriate. The school makes adjustments as needed.
Rumfola says as a Catholic-school alumna herself, the Catholic Church is supposed to reach all of God’s children, and the staff strives to serve as many children as possible.
“Because of our Hand in Hand program, our other students that are in the general classroom are learning how to interact with people that don’t think the same way as them, that don’t necessarily have the same understandings,” Rumfola told the Register.
Some students struggle to understand that a particular student who needs extra support might look like he gets more leniency. That prompts real-time education on the meaning of “fair,” “just,” “equal” and “equity,” she said.
As teachers have adapted to working with students with special needs, they’ve become used to meeting students where they are as unique and made in God’s image.
The Work Ahead
Schools that are exploring accommodations for students with special needs must ensure all staff are on board with the mission, according to Rumfola. Principals can find a partner or mentor who better understands special education to learn more about resources for a variety of learners and set reasonable goals so they can responsibly accept students. Schools should build partnerships to support teachers, too. Parishes can also start small and focus on welcoming students with special needs into the Sunday-school program and other aspects of parish life, including serving at Mass, as active participants, before working on making the school more inclusive.
McCoy-Cejka suggests parents of children with disabilities share with school personnel about their children’s needs and suggest resources.
“They can help people understand that disabilities are neurological, not behavioral, in nature; and if people learn how the brain is operating and respond to that, it is possible for neurotypical and neurodivergent students to learn side by side,” she explained. “Arming themselves with studies on the positive impact of having neurodiverse communities learn together makes a difference.”
Rumfola recommended that people who want to help Catholic schools accept students with disabilities explore local opportunities, like tutoring at a school or helping with a fundraiser. Those who can’t volunteer or donate can pray for students, parents and Catholic schools.
McCoy-Cejka advises community members who aren’t parents of children with disabilities to get to know these families.
“Parents can model welcoming and belonging for their children by embracing and celebrating those who are different,” she said. “This is what we are called to do in Catholic communities. Let’s walk the talk.”
Mary Stroka is an award-winning journalist with experience writing for statewide news media, nonprofits and government bodies. A wife and mother of two, she currently lives in Gillette, Wyoming, where she reports on local news. Her smaller adventures have included studying foreign languages, like Italian and Spanish.