For years, Josie Blessard dreaded school.
The soft-spoken teenager has an auditory processing disorder,
dyslexia and memory and retention difficulties - a
combination of learning disabilities that elicited peers'
taunts in her public school classes.
"I had panic attacks and came to school crying," said Josie.
All that changed last fall when she enrolled as a freshman at
Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington.
"Now she eagerly jumps out of bed in the morning," said her
father, David Blessard. "I honestly feel like it's a miracle.
It is truly amazing what the school is doing, that they care
Aided by O'Connell's newly formed Expanded Services, Josie
joins a growing number of special needs students nationwide
who enjoy the academic, social and spiritual benefits of
Michael Boyle, a Chicago-based special education advocate,
said the trend allows the church to honor its mission and the
Gospel message. "It is us living out our DNA as Catholic
educators," he said. "To me inclusion is not just a schooling
piece, it's a church piece. It challenges us to ask, 'How can
we model acceptance, love and inclusion? How can we wrap our
arms around these children in faith?'"
'No separate church'
Church history is filled with mandates to educate all
children. Vatican II's "Declaration on Christian Education"
states that all the baptized "have a right to a Christian
education." In 1978, the U.S. bishops wrote in their pastoral
statement on people with disabilities that there "can be no
separate church for people with disabilities. We are one
flock that serves a single shepherd."
Though Catholic schools have a history of admitting students
with special needs on a case-by-case basis, until recently,
many struggled to provide an education for children with
intellectual and substantial learning disabilities. There are
a variety of reasons, including increased diagnoses, but the
most common hurdles are related to money and fear of the
unknown, said Lynn Hire, executive director of the nonprofit
Foundation for Inclusive Religious Education in Kansas City,
Mo. FIRE promotes inclusion through advocacy and financial
support to Catholic schools.
A federal civil rights law states that private schools may
not exclude "a handicapped person" if he or she can be
accommodated "with minor adjustments." But unlike public
schools, private elementary and high schools are not required
by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to enroll
all students with special needs. And while some federal
monies are available for private school special education
students, funds are limited and inconsistent.
The cost of educating students with special needs at Catholic
schools varies widely based on region, Hire said. According
to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for
special education teachers in the United States is about
$56,000 a year. Funds also may be needed to equip a resource
room, provide adaptive technology and hire a paraprofessional
for one-on-one support. Peer mentoring, integral to many
inclusive schools, is free but priceless. Peer mentoring
builds "not just token relationships but often authentic
friendships that endure," said Hire.
Boyle, who directs the Andrew M. Greeley Center for Catholic
Education at Loyola University of Chicago and is a National
Catholic Partnership on Disability board member, acknowledged
the financial burdens many Catholic schools face but said
they cannot be used as an excuse.
"How can we say we accept you as a Catholic until it costs
too much money?" said Boyle.
"The biggest obstacle to inclusion is getting your staff and
leadership on board," Hire said. "It's not that the money
will just follow; it's not that simple and money is critical.
But it is secondary to attitudinal shifts that say inclusion
is another opportunity to live our faith."
FIRE has raised $2.4 million to foster inclusion in the
Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph since its founding in 1996
and is developing a consulting structure to share its model
with other dioceses.
Similar to FIRE, the Catholic Coalition for Special Education
funds the expansion of special education instruction and
programs in D.C. and Maryland. Similar fledgling
organizations are forming around the country.
Dioceses without such funding use a mix of creative
strategies. "One of the beautiful things about Catholic
schools is their commitment to mission and their creativity,"
said Boyle. "They know how to make a dollar stretch."
Arlington is one of the most inclusive dioceses in the
country, according to the National Catholic Board on Full
Inclusion, a California-based organization that highlights
inclusive schools, provides resources and support, and
advocates for full inclusion in Catholic schools. Out of 195
dioceses/archdioceses in United States, Arlington is one of
14 listed by the organization as inclusive.
Five Arlington diocesan schools have comprehensive special
education services or programs: O'Connell, Paul VI Catholic
High School in Fairfax, Saint John Paul the Great Catholic
High School in Dumfries, Holy Spirit School in Annandale and
St. Mark School in Vienna. They receive funding from a number
of sources, including local parishioners, the Virginia
Knights of Columbus and Porto Charities, a nonprofit
assisting people with developmental and intellectual
disabilities. Porto Charities has provided more than $1
million to local schools since Paul VI first welcomed
students with special needs in 1998.
"Once you do it, once you have inclusion at a school, you
realize it's not so scary," said Beth Foraker, founder and
director of the inclusion board. "There is no reason that
(children with special needs) cannot be able to be part of
in every way."
The day six years ago that Maria Eisenberg discovered her
daughter Elizabeth, who has Down syndrome, could attend a new
program for special needs students at St. Mark was "one of
the best days of our lives," she said.
To send a student to a Christ-centered school that sees a
child with special needs not as broken but as sacred and holy
is a gift, said both Eisenberg and David Blessard.
Staff and students at Paul VI, where Elizabeth now is a
senior, really "walk the walk," Eisenberg said. "There's a
mission of compassion and acceptance that comes from the top
and trickles down."
The gratitude felt by the Eisenbergs and Blessards is being
experienced by an increasing number of families.
"There has definitely been growth in special education," said
Sister Dale McDonald, director of public policy and
educational research for the National Catholic Educational
In 2013, 46 percent of U.S. Catholic elementary schools had a
resource teacher for special needs students, up from 28
percent in 2001-02, according to NCEA. The organization does
not have similar data for high schools.
NCEA is supporting inclusion with workshops, webinars and
specialized committees, among other efforts.
The growing number of inclusive schools is due in part to the
ripple effects of successful integration and Pope Francis'
challenge to embrace people on the margins, said Foraker.
"An inclusive education finds a place for all and does not
select in an elitist way the beneficiaries of its efforts,"
the pope told parents in Rome last December.
Attitudes toward individuals with special needs also have
shifted to what they can do, rather than what they can't, and
"considerable research supports the fact that inclusion
benefits all," said Hire.
Students with intellectual and substantial learning
disabilities can be "an agent of catechesis in schools,"
"We were at a tipping point before Pope Francis, but he sets
a beautiful example of why we need to welcome all of God's
children," Hire said. "Integrating these students is not just
a leap of faith; this is what we should be doing to support
the best education for everyone."
Find out more
National Catholic Board on
Catholic Partnership on Disability
Catholic Coalition for Special
Foundation for Inclusive