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Over the next two academic years, the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Schools (OCS) plans to expand its services to students with special needs, starting first with programs for children with academic and behavioral challenges and then creating pilot programs for students with autism and Down syndrome.
The “priority initiatives” are the result of several years of meetings both with parents of special needs’ children and with administrators of Catholic schools who have embraced the endeavor, said Dr. Jan Daniel Lancaster, superintendent of Catholic schools.
“This is an opportunity for us to reach out to children with special needs, who are the face of the church,” Lancaster said. “That’s who we are and what we need to do.”
For the 2016-17 academic year, the plan calls for schools to create specialized programs, with funding support from grants written by the Archdiocese of New Orleans, for students who have learning challenges such as dyslexia.
Also, beginning this summer, associate superintendent Jane Baker, who has been in charge of grant-writing and monitoring government programs for the OCS, will focus exclusively on the special needs’ educational initiatives.
Lancaster said during the upcoming academic year, the advisory committee will examine special needs’ programs across the state in order to learn what has been most effective for students with more intense developmental challenges.
Survey of needs is key piece
A survey (available at https://www.surveymonkey.com/ r/B7QVYHZ) will help the office develop the pilot programs in 2017-18 for students with “more substantive challenges” such as autism and Down syndrome, Lancaster said.
“The survey will allow us to see what the needs are,” Lancaster said. “We’re going to look at the results of the survey to determine what course of action to take. Schools have said they want to step up to the plate. It’s an honor and a privilege to have kids with special needs in our schools. This will make a difference in the lives of students and in the lives of parents and families.”
The archdiocese currently has two schools – St. Michael Special School and Holy Rosary Academy and High School – serving students with developmental or learning challenges. The special needs’ initiatives will not affect the programs at those schools, Lancaster said.
Every school currently makes provisions to serve students who are struggling with academic or behavioral issues, Lancaster said.
Under Section 504 of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Catholic schools that receive federal funds must provide certain services for students with special learning needs such as dyslexia or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, said Dr. Yvonne Adler, head of the upper school at the Academy of the Sacred Heart and a member of the advisory council of administrators working with OCS on the special needs plan.
Some schools offer “resource rooms” where students struggling in a certain subject are pulled out for more concentrated and closely supervised work with a resource teacher.
Adler said many schools want to expand their services next year to children “with mild learning issues.”
Then, in 2017-18, Adler said, “some schools will be providing services to students who have disabilities to a more moderate degree, such as Down syndrome and autism. And, beyond that, we’ve had requests from parents to serve students with more significant impairments or disabilities.”
During the several years of planning, the OCS has been preparing teachers with a battery of workshops designed to help them identify students with learning issues through the use of readily available tests and assessments, said Baker, who will be coordinating the special needs program for OCS.
Teachers also have been taught to pick up on clues that indicate a student is struggling, Baker said. Sometimes that’s as simple as a quizzical expression on the child’s face, she said. Often the problems are reflected in testing and homework.
Each school should have an “individual needs” committee to discuss the needs of struggling students, Baker said.
“Sometimes there’s no issue – it’s just that the student hasn’t done his homework,” Baker said. “Or, it could be the child needs an adjustment to the curriculum, so the content could be adjusted or the process of how you deliver the information can change.”
The intense professional development of teachers over the last several years has established a firm foundation for the special needs’ programs, Baker said.
“At some time in our life, everybody is learning disabled,” Baker said. “I made A’s in quadratic equations in school. Do you think I have any interest in that now? No. So, what we have to do is teach kids how they learn best and teach them compensatory skills.”
Baker said Catholic schools in the archdiocese “are on the cusp” of providing more intensive services to students with learning challenges.
“We have not done as well as we could with really targeting the specificity that children need,” Baker said. “We’ve got a lot of kids that are dyslexic and struggle with language processing. We need the finest trained teachers to work with those kids. It’s not sufficient to put them in a generic room. Schools have looked at their data and at their own needs, and they’ve generated their own plans.”
Word will spread quickly
When more schools are adept at targeting specific learning issues, Baker said, the word gets out fast.
“Word of mouth is how schools get kids,” Baker said. “Doctors hear about it and start having parents send their kids there, and then everybody sends them to you.”
The additional year of study will let Baker and the OCS pore over educational research to see what would best fit in the archdiocese.
“We have to go study programs, talk to people and read the literature, so this is just the beginning,” Baker said.
The exciting thing is that no one really knows exactly where the path will lead, especially when dealing with children with various levels of developmental or learning challenges, Baker said.
“I think we need to think outside of the box with this,” she said. “If some little kids can only come three days a week, well, that’s fine. Some might be highly competent and be able to go into regular classes, but we have to have supports built in.”
For any special needs’ plan to work, the funding will have to be in place. The pilot program is fully funded, Lancaster said. Depending on the needs they identify, schools likely will have to hire additional teachers highly skilled in special needs’ education.
Adler, who served for many years as a teacher and administrator of special education in St. Charles Parish’s public schools, said the financial piece might rely on some combination of higher tuition and archdiocesan support.
“Typically, it depends upon the depth of need that a student requires,” Adler said. “It’s going to take some time to design the programs you need.
“First, you need to confirm that the children are eligible and then you have to focus on the provision of necessary services. Then you have to hire the teachers, the para-educators and related-services personnel like speech therapists, physical therapists and occupational therapists. That’s why we’re talking about a pilot program.”
Baker said the time is right for Catholic schools to do whatever it can to be a welcoming community to those with special needs.
“As long as we had traditional ways of looking at schools, it couldn’t work,” Baker said. “Now we have a better understanding that everybody learns in a different way. This fits in so well with the Jubilee Year of Mercy. It fits in with embracing all.
“We don’t want to over-promise, but I think people need to know that we are really committed to this.”