Welcoming All Learners: Parents Urge Catholic Schools to Serve Students With Special Needs

Educators offer tips and strategies for parochial schools to be more inclusive to pupils with learning differences.

It is key to take into account the abilities of all students, Catholic educators say.
It is key to take into account the abilities of all students, Catholic educators say. (photo: Shutterstock)

Vincent de Paul Schmidt keeps a list of seven excuses he says he often hears from educators when they are asked about taking on students with special needs in Catholic schools:

1. It’s too much money.

2. The building isn’t set up for it.

3. We don’t have “those kids.”

4. Those kids wouldn’t come here.

5. Teachers aren’t trained in special education.

6. Public schools do special education better.

7. We’ve never done it before.

To these, he responds with a definitive, if colorful, epithet.

“I know there are limitations for us in Catholic-school systems and things we can’t do. However, we clearly can do way, way more than we ever have in the past, and we need to do way, way more than we are now,” said Schmidt, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey, in a telephone interview with the Register.

After a short stint as a professional tennis player, Schmidt became a teacher at a Catholic school in Missouri, where he is from. He later became an administrator, and he has since led diocesan Catholic-school systems in northwestern Ohio, West Virginia and, now, central New Jersey. He wrote his doctoral dissertation about special education in Catholic schools in West Virginia.

Schmidt became an advocate for special education in Catholic schools some years ago when he asked a local Catholic school if his son with Down syndrome could attend. The initial verbal response was positive. The practical response was negligible. He was shocked.

While he has seen what he considers improvements during the past 20 years, he is still frustrated with the tendency of many Catholic schools to steer students with special needs away.

“It’s so un-Catholic,” Schmidt said. “It’s so un-what Catholic teachers chose the vocation for — to help kids.”


The Numbers

About 15% of students nationwide have special needs, stemming from physical or mental disabilities requiring intervention, according to the National Association for Education Statistics.

In Catholic schools, the figure is about 7.5% percent, said Lincoln Snyder, president and chief executive officer of the National Catholic Educational Association, which claims all approximately 5,950 Catholic schools in the country as members.

Public schools have higher budgets, higher salaries, bigger buildings and more special-education staff than Catholic schools, and they must by law take all students, so they accommodate more students with special needs.

But Snyder contended that the old perception — that Catholic schools point parents with children with special needs to public schools — is changing, and that it must — in part because both parents and schools need it to change.

“When they come to the Catholic system, they’re looking for a safe, loving environment for their children with learning differences, and when schools create that kind of environment, you often see a big spike in enrollment,” Snyder told the Register by telephone.

For Catholic schools, it should be about both providing needed services and securing students — not just those with special needs, but also their siblings, he said.

“If you can’t accommodate the one child, the entire family may not remain in the system,” Snyder said. “It’s high stakes for students, the families and the schools.”


Discriminatory Applications?

In August 2022, a lawyer in Louisiana filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of unnamed students with special needs against the Archdiocese of New Orleans in state court in Orleans Parish, claiming that “… the majority of Catholic schools ask questions that elicit information about a prospective student’s disability. These schools use these questions as a screening device to weed out children with disabilities.”

“There is no reason that any of these schools need to know any disability-related information before making a conditional offer of admission,” the class-action petition states. “… Schools can obtain whatever medical information they need to know after making a preliminary offer of admission. If, after consulting with the parents and/or the child’s doctors, the school is not able to meet a particular student’s individual needs, then it is not legally obligated to enroll the student.”

The plaintiffs say the school applications violate Louisiana state law protecting people with disabilities, arguing that Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of New Orleans are places of “public accommodation” under state law because they receive millions of dollars in government funds and because their services are not “available only to its members,” a phrase taken from a state statute.

The plaintiffs are not seeking money damages, but rather an injunction from the court ordering the schools to change their applications.

A lawyer for the archdiocese defended the applications in an email message in 2021, before the lawsuit was filed, saying that “our school leadership does not use information from our applications to discriminate against any prospective student in a manner contrary to law,” according to a story published in August 2022 on the website of The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate.

A spokesman for the archdiocese contacted by the Register in mid-August 2023 declined comment, noting that the suit is pending.


What Does the Church Say?

In 1978, what is now known as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called for Catholic schoolteachers to “be provided in-service training in how best to integrate students with disabilities into programs of regular education” in a document called “Pastoral Statement of U.S. Catholic Bishops on Persons With Disabilities.”

In 1998, the bishops’ conference called for “the right to equal opportunity in education” for people with disabilities in a document called “Welcome and Justice for Persons With Disabilities: A Framework of Access and Inclusion.”

In 2005, the U.S. bishops’ conference praised “the increasing number of our school administrators and teachers who have taken steps to welcome these children and others with special needs into our Catholic schools,” but also acknowledged room for improvement.

“Catholic schools must also continue to look for ways to include and serve better the needs of young people in our Church who have special educational and physical needs,” states the document, “Renewing Our Commitment to Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools in the Third Millennium.”

The 2005 U.S. bishops’ document also called on government “to allow special education monies to follow and support students with disabilities no matter where they attend school.”

In 2015, in a speech to Italian Catholic schoolteachers, Pope Francis called on educators to offer “welcoming and benevolent relations … indiscriminately to all,” but said “the disabled” are among those who deserve even more consideration.

“Indeed, the duty of a good teacher — all the more for a Christian teacher — is to love his or her more difficult, weaker, more disadvantaged students with greater intensity,” Pope Francis said, with emphasis in the original text. “Jesus would say, if you love only those who study, who are well educated, what merit do you have? … I ask you to love the ‘difficult’ students more ...”

The U.S. bishops’ conference is preparing to update its pastoral statement on people with disabilities. Advocates for special education say they would like to see in the document clear support for improving special-needs services in Catholic schools, as the Register reported in July.

Charleen Katra, the executive director of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability (NCPD), said that she feels Catholic schools are “going in the right direction, but there’s always more work to be done.” She said for Catholic schools there is often the concern of insufficient finances and resources, which “make it challenging for the school to feel ready to serve someone.” 

The NCPD is working on the issue, she noted, and in cases where families tried to go to a Catholic school that “wasn’t as far ahead on this road as another school,” the organization is equipped to “address that and redirect them to someone else that would meet their needs.” 



New York, New York

Some Catholic-school systems provide extensive special-needs services with the help of significant government funding.

The Archdiocese of New York’s school system, which is among the biggest in the country, has a web page describing its special-education offerings, which include “speech, physical and occupational therapies, counseling, academic tutoring, and behavioral support,” said T.J. McCormack, director of communications and public relations, by email.

More than 40 full-time education consultants in the school system implement special-education strategies, “which are routinely integrated into all our professional-development programs for staff,” he said. The system provides student-assistance plans for parents who request one and has several schools dedicated to educating students with special needs (including John Cardinal O’Connor School in Irvington, New York, and Seton Foundation for Learning on Staten Island), along with several schools that have staff members who assist classroom teachers in helping students with special needs.

Money to pay for many of these services comes from federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act funds and New York state funds, he said.


Monetary Aid

In 1996, six parents in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, started a nonprofit organization to raise money for Catholic schools to provide services for students with special education.

Nowadays, the Foundation for Inclusive Religious Education (known as “FIRE,” which is both an acronym and a reference to the Holy Spirit) grants about $800,000 a year to 14 Catholic schools in the diocese, said M. Lynn Hire, the executive director.

About 65% of donations come from individuals, stemming largely from three big yearly events — a golf tournament, an auction and a gala. The organization has also received grants from The Raskob Foundation for Catholic Activities and The Lilly Foundation, she said.

The organization has spawned eight independent affiliates, in the Dioceses of Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas; Manchester, New Hampshire; Sioux City, Iowa; Peoria, Illinois; and Gary, Indiana; and in the Archdioceses of Denver, Milwaukee, and Dubuque, Iowa. Two more, in the Dioceses of St. Augustine, Florida, and Covington, Kentucky, are in the works.

“We didn’t set out to be a national organization. But as our footprint is expanding, this is becoming more of a movement as opposed to a one-off,” Hire said. “This is something that can benefit folks from across the country.”

She says baptized children deserve the opportunity to get a Catholic education, regardless of their physical or mental limitations.

“There are no more excuses for Catholic schools to say ‘No.’ There are ways to do this,” Hire told the Register by telephone. “We can no longer say ‘No’ to parents because we have so many examples of what this means to families and to living our faith. This is a respect-life issue.”


Accommodating Students

In northern California, Principal Christie Horton doesn’t have as much money available as she would like for special needs at her Catholic school, but her school has made dramatic improvements in providing special-needs services inexpensively or even no cost, she told the Register.

Of about 280 kids at preschool-through-eighth-grade St. John the Evangelist School in Carmichael, at least 40 have special needs. That’s a much higher percentage than at a typical Catholic school and close to the national average for all schools in the country.

Special needs at St. John’s include attention deficit, hyperactivity, dyslexia (trouble with reading), dyscalculia (trouble with math), dysgraphia (trouble with writing) and autism.

The special-needs turnaround at the school began in 2014, when she was teaching eighth grade at St. John’s and wanted to put her son Isaac, who has autism, in preschool there. The principal said “Yes,” on a trial basis.

“It wasn’t the level of in-depth support that you need to be truly inclusive and to be able to invite students with significant special needs to your school,” Horton said.

California doesn’t provide public-school special-education services to religious schools. (That policy is the subject of a federal lawsuit likely to reach the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and possibly the U.S. Supreme Court.)

Yet Horton’s family’s health insurance paid for an applied-behavior-analysis aide to accompany her son in the school. The aide, an expert in autism, provided tips to teachers, who also tweaked the curriculum to accommodate Isaac’s needs.

“As teachers gained experience working with him … they became more confident and much more willing to bring in students like Isaac. It kind of grew,” Horton said.

Now, teachers at the school regularly benefit from aides paid for by the students’ parents’ health insurance. At one point, an expert donated her time to observe classes and offer coaching to teachers afterward.

Teachers at St. John’s also get professional development provided by FIRE in Kansas City for a small amount of money. (In the past, the figure has been $150 per teacher, Horton said. FIRE offers a once-every-two-years conference in person and online in February, said Hire; the per-teacher fee for the most recent version in February 2023 ranged from $199 to $299, she said.) 


Aiding Inclusion

With more money, Horton said, St. John the Evangelist School could educate more students — including kids with “moderate to severe” emotional disturbance, kids who need a full-time special-education teacher with them throughout the day, and kids who are more than four grade levels behind their age.

“We try to be honest with the parents. We are not a formal special-education program. We’re an inclusion program,” Horton said. “If what we are offering, and what we are capable of producing, is not going to help the child grow, then we have that conversation with the parents.”

Welcoming students with special needs to Catholic schools centers on three things, Schmidt told the Register: audit, attitude and availability.

Schmidt recommended that all Catholic schools do an audit of their building and staff, to see what the school can and can’t offer, so that when parents call, they will be given an immediate answer that is realistic.

But the default answer should be welcoming, Schmidt says.

“The answer should always be, ‘Yes, let’s see,’ as opposed to ‘No, we can’t,’” Schmidt said.

Even so, he acknowledges that Catholic schools can’t accommodate every child. For instance, Catholic schools can’t handle disruptive behavior if they don’t have the staff to deal with the child.

“Not every kid can be in a Catholic school,” Schmidt said. “But we should at least investigate whether that’s because of our limitations or theirs.”