Special education initiative blazes new trail
NEW HAVEN — The Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend with the Catholic School’s Office is launching an initiative to address the needs of children with disabilities. Dr. Mark Myers, superintendent of Catholic schools, says the program will fund 20 new students with special needs this fall from across the diocese who are currently enrolled in a public school and eligible for the Indiana School Voucher.
The program, which will begin in the fall of the 2012-2013 school term, is formatted to serve students from kindergarten through eighth grade with most any disability. The diocese is committed to serving each accepted student through the duration of their Catholic education up to grade eight.
The new program took shape following two meetings, one in Fort Wayne and the other in South Bend, where parents of children with special needs met with diocesan school officials to voice their concerns. Myers says the meetings were informative and cathartic. “Parents shared their stories and their strong desire for their children to have catechetical formation,” he says.
Currently St. Louis Academy, Besancon, located at 15535 Lincoln Hwy. East, New Haven, is preparing to be the inaugural site for the Fort Wayne area for eight of the 20 students who will be admitted to the program. Principal Cheryl Klinker is optimistic about the addition of this unique program to her school and will be hiring a qualified resource teacher and teacher’s aids to accommodate the new students.
Klinker brings 14 years of experience with special needs programs, including the resource program that she founded at St. Vincent de Paul School in Fort Wayne, to this new venture, and says, “God’s hand is definitely in this, it has been a true discernment process. I hope the new families of students with special needs come to realize the uniqueness of a Christ-centered education in a Catholic school. I know the impact the school will have on each special student, but I also know the impact each special student will have on our school and community.”
The 20 new students will be accepted through an admissions process in which parents will fill out an application found online at www.diocesefwsb.org. After applying for the school voucher and being accepted, the qualifying family would then have the opportunity to choose St. Louis Academy to serve their child’s academic and catechetical needs. There will be no financial liability to the parish.
Upon admission each student will be carefully assessed to determine needs and a plan will be implemented that will include both academic and catechetical education. The students will be admitted holistically, reports Myers, with the highest probability of meeting the needs of the entire class. As the program grows schools will naturally gain expertise in particular disabilities and will soon host specific populations, such as autism or Down syndrome.
Though Dr. Myers reports the diocese is starting slowly with this small number, the program is by no means questionable. “We’re not experimenting. We’re working with best practices to ensure children have every opportunity for development and catechesis,” says Myers, noting that observational visits will be made to Chicago and the Archdiocese of St. Louis where similar programs to model have been successfully in place for some time.
Mary Glowaski, Secretariat for Evangelization and Special Ministries, under which disabilities falls, says, “Serving the disabled in the diocese isn’t an option. It’s a challenge and a privilege.” She has confidence in the new program and adds, “I believe God is blessing this endeavor. As a diocese we need the gifts, talents and faithfulness of the disabled.”
According to the National Catholic Partnership on Disabilities the Church must provide full and meaningful participation for all. And, that, Glowaski says, must be in everything done within the Church. Of the initiative she adds, “It’s a huge shift in awareness and opportunity.”
The opportunities for these special children include inclusion into regular education classrooms with staffing based on needs, as well as a pull-out program for curriculum supplementation. “We will adjust curriculum so students can function at instructional levels. And we will provide ample support with teacher’s aids,” says Myers, adding, that the inclusion model is a Church teaching and the law.
The students will travel to St. Louis Academy each morning from Bishop Dwenger High School, the central drop-off, pick-up point for Fort Wayne, via an aid-supervised bus. Bishop Dwenger students will assist the aid with supervision upon return to the high school in the afternoon.
Teachers will receive training through the Teaching Exceptional Children program at the University of Notre Dame, which requires 18 hours of study and earns licensure to teach special needs students. Consultation on best practices with Notre Dame’s Joyce Johnstone will round out the development of the fledgling program. The hope is that these qualified teachers will become useful resources for regular education staff.
Myers, along with diocesan and school officials, is optimistic about this extraordinary opportunity and says, “I expect the program to grow both vertically and horizontally with more schools and growth in numbers over the years.” He concludes “My confidence in this comes from knowing the children we admit and with whom we’ll be working are going to bring something so special to us that they’re going to make it grow.”
Dr. Myers is grateful to St. Louis Academy staff and school board, Principal Klinker and Father Stephen Colchin, pastor, for committing to the implementation of this exceptional program and is currently seeking schools in the South Bend area that have a passion for educating all children in the Catholic faith and will accept the challenge to host this unique and much needed program.