Catholic Schools and Investing in Special Education

Special needs children may now have a viable alternative to public schools

Catholic School girls running in hallway
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For years, special needs children had few alternatives to public schools for their education, but the Disability News reports that Catholic schools may be poised to get into the special education business in a big way.

Parochial school parents have fund raised to create special education programs or have agreed to pay higher tuition for Catholic schools to develop such programs. Moreover, many parochial schools that don't have full-fledged special ed programs have added resource teachers to their staffs.

What's Responsible for the Trend?

The new openness to special ed programs may be driven by the shrinking population of regular education students choosing Catholic schools. Nationwide, parochial schools are shutting down in droves as diocesan funding dries up and families who are struggling financially return to public school. Maybe students with disabilities, who for so long had no place in parochial schools, may now be the savior of some of them.

Educators and parents of special needs children have noticed the trend as well. Here's what some of them have said* about their experiences with special education in Catholic schools.

What Teachers Have Noticed

An educator named Kathi discussed how a Catholic school she's affiliated with fundraises to support special needs students.

"I work with students at a small Catholic school in Columbus, Ohio," she said. "We have a program here called SPICE, Special People in Catholic Education.

It includes gifted students as well as special needs. We have a handful of students from high-functioning autistic to mild mentally retarded and those with combination diagnosis. We do fundraising and apply for grants to help defray the cost. The parents are, for the most part, very happy with this option."

An educator named Marta reported how the Catholic school she runs has opened its doors to students with Down syndrome.

"Our children thrive here, and we are trying to create a model for other Catholic schools to replicate throughout the country," she said. "We need to take in all children because we are Catholic and we understand the dignity and value of each child."

A Catholic school principal named Tony said that his school has overcome challenges to serve students with learning disabilities.

"Our school was the poorest in town. We welcomed students who were different and helped them grow in faith and knowledge," he said. "One, with whom I still keep in touch, is in college and doing quite well, even though he was expelled from other schools before he came to us. I firmly believe he helped us more than we helped him. ...Jesus admonished the Apostles to let all the children come to him, not just those easy to teach or work with."

Special Needs Parents With Positive Experiences at Catholic Schools

A parent named Ann said that a Catholic school in Riverhead, N.Y., has embraced her special needs child.

"They have nourished and encouraged my learning disabled child," she said. "They have a great program which includes a director, staff and also district staff. It’s the best of both worlds."

Kathy, the parent of a girl with Down syndrome said she was surprised when a Catholic school in Tulsa, Okla., agreed to admit her daughter.

"Our principal was thrilled at the opportunity to provide for her," she said. "...It has been up to us to fundraise, form a board, and gather continued support for our program to support para professionals in the classroom and a part-time special education teacher to write curriculum. This inclusive program works well. We now have four students who otherwise would have never been accepted into a traditional Catholic school."

A mother named Dawn reported that her son with attention hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has been welcomed by his local Catholic school.

"Our school works very closely and actively to help educate my son and he is doing very well," she said. "Our school receives state funding from our town, which allows him an in-class support teacher five days a week and has since first grade. The teachers and principal work closely with me along with the child study team from our school district, which administers evaluations and his IEP. I’m a little confused why others in Catholic schools don’t get their share from the school district. You do pay school tax you don’t use, and your private school should receive assistance."

Challenges Special Needs Children Face at Parochial Schools 

Many special needs children face the possibility of being expelled from Catholic schools, according to parents. Some parochial schools also lack behavioral intervention programs for special needs students.

Shelley, the mother of a child with ADHD, is a case in point. "We have been in Catholic school for K-2, but I was told this was his last year there," she said. "The school is unwilling to implement consistent positive behavioral modifications. ...It’s very frustrating to not get the support from the church. What is this teaching our children?"

Mia, the mother of a child with autism, has faced challenges trying to enroll her special needs son in the same Catholic school as his older sister.

"My son is autistic with emerging speech. He needs to be around typical children to continue to develop socially," she explained. "The principal is young and new, and the rest of the staff are not as familiar as they could be with the autism spectrum.

"I went in knowing that I will be the support system and 'educator to the educators.' ... I hate that we can’t just register like everyone else. ...I hate that I have to beg to get him in there. The whole situation stinks, but by God if it makes the path a little smoother for my son and opens the door for others to have this option, then I will make it happen."

A parent named Mary said that her daughter was hurt when her Catholic school expelled her.

“My daughter went to Catholic school for two years," Mary said. "The third year I was told they couldn’t ‘accommodate her needs.’ She was devastated. It took her two years at the local public school before she stopped thinking that ‘they kicked her out’ because she needed special ed for reading and math.

"The Catholic school isn’t equipped with the resources she needs. I don’t really like the public school system by us, but that’s what we have to work with for now.”

Wrapping Up

Clearly, parents of special needs children have had a wide range of experiences in Catholic schools, as have educators. Whether positive or negative, their experiences indicate that parochial schools have strides to make when it comes to educating children with learning disabilities.

*Remarks have been edited for clarity and continuity.

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