Teaching all of our children is a priority that cannot wait
Plans have been announced this week by the Office of Catholic Schools about an initiative to provide more services in our schools for children with special needs. Why is this so important to you?
Providing educational services within our Catholic schools to families who have a child with special needs has been a major concern of mine since I became archbishop in 2009.
I know we haven’t done enough to serve these families, and I’m sorry to those who have felt let down by the church. In traveling around the archdiocese, I’ve heard so many heart-wrenching stories from parents who want to place their child in a Catholic school setting but have been told we could not accommodate their needs. We may not be able to serve every special needs’ child who comes to us, but we are committed to expanding our services over the next two years, and I think we’re headed in the right direction. My prayer is that this will provide help and hope to many parents who have children with educational challenges.
How did this initiative get started?
Our superintendent of Catholic schools, Dr. Jan Daniel Lancaster, put together a tremendously engaged committee of principals and school administrators to review, first of all, what we are currently doing in this area, and then to discuss how we could provide more services. Jan also convened a group of parents who have special needs’ children to see what their most important priorities are. Over and over, we heard from parents that they want to be able to have their children educated in our Catholic schools. They want their children to be included in the classroom, where teachers and students can talk freely about Jesus and the Catholic faith. They want those daily interactions for their children with other students.
So often we concentrate on what special needs’ kids can learn from others in a safe, caring, faith-filled environment. But another enormous blessing is what the special needs’ child can do for the entire school community. Our students learn first-hand the lessons of caring for and respecting the dignity of every person. They see the sacrifices a special needs’ child makes in learning even simple tasks. Most importantly, they see a precious classmate who is loved by God. The Holy Spirit enkindles in them a love for their vulnerable neighbor.
How are our schools supporting children with special needs right now?
I have seen a shift from a “one-size-fits-all” educational approach to a recognition that the abilities and needs of each child are unique. We’ve certainly learned this from the administrators and parents who have been meeting with Jan and evaluating the effectiveness of our existing programs. For the last four years, our teachers and principals have participated in extensive training to help them analyze data, which is readily available through tests and other assessments, so that they can tailor their teaching methods to the needs of the child.
That’s a technique educators like to call “prescriptive teaching.” What it boils down to is finding each student’s academic challenges and then using certain teaching methods to help him or her improve. The professional development workshops also have helped our teachers identify the specific learning challenges and then come up with strategies to tailor teacher instruction to help each child learn at his or her own pace. The professional development seminars have spurred a lot of interest, especially among teachers who see their career path leading to school administration some day. We’ve also offered financial support to teachers to attend graduate school and professional training workshops that focus on dealing with diverse populations of students.
What’s the current snapshot of special needs’ education in the archdiocese?
Presently, there are two special schools in the Archdiocese of New Orleans – St. Michael Special School and Holy Rosary Academy and High School. But many of our schools have resource rooms, which allow for more intensive work for students with learning challenges. Some of our schools follow the special-education requirements established by the Louisiana State Department of Education. Others operate resource rooms following what best serves their student populations.
Each school is required to have something called an “Individual Needs Committee” that identifies students requiring extra help and offers teaching strategies and adjustments to the curriculum that will help the student succeed. We’ve also been able to beef up our technology in many schools. Grant money has allowed schools to receive iPads, tablets and interactive white boards. Schools also have been able to buy high-quality computer programs and other teacher resources to help students in language arts, math and test prep. All of our schools receive federal funds that help them offer academic remediation for students and professional development for teachers.
How are our schools planning to expand support for students with special needs?
The great news is that the self-evaluations, school-wide assessments and professional training seminars already have triggered a profound philosophical shift in our school personnel. We have reached a consensus that we are not doing enough to reach out to children, particularly those with more specialized academic and behavioral needs. We’ve rejected the traditional belief that the child must fit the curriculum and embraced a new understanding that the curriculum must meet the needs of the child. One priority for the next academic year (2016-17) is to establish several specialized programs designed by individual school leaders and staff.
These programs will expand services that schools are currently providing to students needing additional support, whether it’s in academics, organization or behavior. Each program will reflect the needs of individual students in each school. We will have the necessary resources for success: highly qualified teachers and support personnel; mentoring and professional development for teachers; quality instructional resources; strong parental support; and continued evaluations of each program. In 2017-18, we will establish pilot programs designed to allow our schools to work effectively with students with challenges such as autism and Down syndrome.
The pilot programs will build on what we learn in the upcoming academic year, which is when we have committed ourselves to visiting existing programs in Louisiana, consulting with experts and reviewing professional literature. We want to look at all available research to determine what works best for students who have autism, behavioral challenges or medical challenges. We hope these new programs will include not only effective academic curricula but also offer hands-on life and social skills training and vocational services. We also hope students will be involved with archdiocesan ministries as volunteers and perhaps even gain employment.
Why is this initiative a priority for Catholics schools and for the archdiocese as a whole?
Nothing could be more fitting during this Jubilee Year of Mercy than to invite more of God’s children and their families to participate in Catholic education in our archdiocese. If we truly respect all life, our Catholic schools must embrace those who have been excluded and provide more programs and services to “welcome home” all of God’s children. I truly see the Holy Spirit at work.
There’s been a noticeable culture shift in our schools. Principals and teachers are volunteering with tremendous enthusiasm to expand programs to include students with academic and behavioral challenges. There has been a new understanding that each child is a unique learner and valued by the Lord. If we are to teach as Jesus taught, we are to welcome our children. May God bless our efforts. May God bless our young church, who are so valuable to God and to us!