The good news about Catholic schools is that -- according to the website for the USCCB -- "National test scores, high school graduation rates, college attendance and other data show that Catholic schools frequently outperform schools in both the public and private sectors". Unfortunately, the bad news about Catholic schools is that this statement only holds true because they do not do nearly as much as the public schools when it comes to serving children with Special Needs. More and more Special Needs students are being excluded from Catholic schools.
Several years ago, I was a classroom aide in a local Catholic school. One "regular education" 6th-grade girl was telling me how terrific her younger brother was. Seeing that it was close to recess time, I invited her to bring him to me outdoors so I could meet this wonderful child. Her reply was, "Oh, he can't go here...he has to go to public school...he needs Special Education". There were two children in that family: one in Catholic school, one in public; one going to two towns over for the Catholic school, one staying in-town for the public school. Two sets of friends, two school districts, one going to CCD, the other not; two school calendars...on and on it went. Imagine what it's like when there is one Special Needs student in the family and there are 3 or more siblings all going off together to the Catholic school and leaving the one behind.
Years later, I am a certified Teacher of Moderate Disabilities in a public school district. I've spoken to several principals in my diocese and in the neighboring one and almost all say the same, "We don't offer Special Education". Some principals have even added, "We don't need it" or, "We don't get into that". The question is, why not? Don't our Special Needs students deserve a Catholic education, too? Many Catholic schools have become quite elitist -- principals can select those children they want to accept and reject the rest because "we're not equipped". I went on a retreat years ago and met a Catholic school principal who shared with me that one of their students was just diagnosed with Autism. I asked what would happen to him and she said that he would likely be sent to the local public school because “we can’t serve him”. So sad, yet it is an all-too-common occurrence in our Catholic Schools.
October 2015 will mark the 50th Anniversary of Pope Paul VI's Declaration on Christian Education, GRAVISSIMUM EDUCATIONIS; isn't it time for it to become fully implemented?
In this document Pope Paul states "All men of every race, condition (italics mine) and age, since they enjoy the dignity of a human being, have an inalienable right to an education..." (¶ 1). and that "they have a right to a Christian education". Additionally, "this sacred synod recalls to pastors of souls their most serious obligation to see to it that all the faithful, but especially the youth who are the hope of the Church, enjoy this Christian education" (¶2). Didn't Jesus himself assert that "Whatsoever you do to the least of my brethren you do to me" (Mt. 25:40)?
The real problem is two-fold. Oftentimes, when Catholic school principals hear the term "Special Needs" they think in terms of severe/profound disabilities and the need for a substantially separate school. They also assume that accommodating students of Special Needs in Catholic schools is somehow cost prohibitive.
First, we'll look at the level of special education and then at the cost. Almost all Catholic schools should be able to implement a program for Moderate Disabilities: Aspergers, Specific Learning Disability (SLD), ADHD, Down Syndrome, to name but a few. Any Catholic School can implement Wilson Reading and/or Read Naturally, arrange for pull-outs for math and/or ELA and modify both instruction and assessments. Some students need less items on quizzes/tests to check for mastery; some need an extra minute or two to formulate their thoughts before answering out loud. Not all can pass the entrance exam in the same amount of time -- or pass it at all. Some need a word bank to select answers from or multiple choice because they cannot memorize so much information.
But isn't this a costly endeavor? It's far more costly to split families apart when we cannot accommodate children with special needs. Our Catholic schools have become elitist -- choosing only those who can make our test scores look good.
What I am speaking of does not consist of building a substantially separate school for Special Needs but a regular education school with a Special Needs program - Huge difference. In order to be able to afford it, pooling resources is the way to build an excellent program.
In my diocese this could mean choosing just one of the five Catholic elementary schools (and the one diocesan high school) in the northern part of the diocese and designate it as the "Regular Ed" school with the Special Needs program. In order to keep families intact, all the siblings of the Special Needs student would go to the same school. One Special Ed director would be hired to service the one elementary school and the high school students while funding would come from all six schools to pay that salary with benefits and build the program. That person would also be the liaison to the various public school districts that the children live in.
The central part of the diocese would designate 2-4 schools as the ones having SpEd programs and then the same thing would happen in the southern part of the diocese. It is all very workable and it would put an end to most of our Catholic schools from becoming elitist.
I am absolutely not saying that none of our Catholic schools offer Special Education, but those that do are in a tiny minority. I had at one time worked for a parish school that did offer Special Education as did the Catholic High school next door. There were two schools covering grades K-12 and I was the entire department for Special Needs for both: Teacher, Coordinator, Administrator, liaison for IEP Team meetings in 8 public school districts with a case load of about 40. Yes, I was on the road a lot. But it worked! Many students in the Catholic high school came from Catholic elementary schools that did not offer Special Needs and so we had to scramble to get them caught up. Unfortunately both of those schools have since closed but it was a worthwhile and successful program.
Catholic schools are an excellent choice because the whole person is formed: body, mind, emotionally and spiritually. I remember my own days of attending Catholic school (grades 1-5) very fondly. If we want to increase our numbers in our Catholic schools, we should add programs of Special Education as soon as we can. But it's not about just increasing our numbers, is it? Rather, it is about allowing moderately disabled children to be among their non-disabled peers in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) as both federal and state law mandates. Catholic schools are natural environs for Special Needs children for oftentimes they have smaller-sized classrooms. Children need to learn that not everyone is as bright as they are, but all have the same dignity in the eyes of God and all have different gifts to offer.