Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Denver are walking the walk when it comes to the Church’s outspoken compassion for people with special needs and learning differences.
“The Catholic Church loses out if we only nurture part of our family,” said Mary Ernst, Special Needs Teacher at All Souls Catholic School in Denver. “Students who learn in various ways enrich the faith lives of all.”
Although they don’t have the same resources available as public schools, Ernst and her fellow Catholic school professionals around the archdiocese are finding creative ways to include students with a variety of learning needs.
Abriana Chilelli, Director of Curriculum and Instruction for the Archdiocese of Denver, explained the importance of their efforts.
“Our work in Catholic schools is to develop the intellect to know God, to form the emotions towards what is good, to teach children the truth about their bodies given to them by God, and to help form their souls to love God,” she said.
“With such a worthy mission, we cannot exclude children if we can reasonably serve them in our schools.”
Schools like Bishop Machebeuf High School make a Catholic education possible for students with diagnosed learning differences such as autism and ADD by offering a learning strategies program (LSP) for students who need it.
The program is set up around the executive functions, such as time management and task initiation, and exists as an elective credit course that is part of the students’ regular school day, explained Karen Zimmerman, Learning Specialist Teacher at the high school.
Students work to accomplish individualized goals, and Zimmerman creates an accommodation plan for their other classes to help them succeed — something she sees as intricate to the Church’s mission.
“To me, that is Catholic education — that we serve all God’s children,” she said. “All means all.”
Zimmerman is grateful to be able to work with students of all needs.
“God didn’t make a mistake,” she said. “They’re made in his image. He knows them by name and he has a plan for them. I’m just lucky enough to help them along the way.”
All Souls also works with students with a variety of needs, including ADHD, sensory processing issues and high functioning autism.
By offering small group reinforcement outside the classroom and giving students a quiet place with extended time to take tests, All Souls provides effective accommodations for these students. Ernst also works with each individual and their teachers so they can succeed in their regular classes.
“This helps to keep labeling to a minimum and adds to the social climate in our school of collaboration and acceptance of all,” said Ernst.
For schools like Our Lady of Lourdes, the special education services it offers are new, but Special Education Coordinator Kristen Hockel has high hopes for its growth.
Hockel currently works part time with a handful of students who have a variety of learning differences. Like Ernst, a major part of her work is providing teachers with support and resources to ensure their students’ success.
“This year it’s very much an inclusive model, so all of our kids with special education needs are within the general education classroom pretty much all day,” said Hockel. “What we’re trying to do is really make sure that our kids are included, that they’re with their peers.”
Those efforts are a crucial part of giving the students a positive and uplifting environment to learn in.
“These kids learn so much about themselves from who they’re around and who they interact with,” said Hockel.
“If we can put them in an environment where they are with their peers, where they are learning about Christ every day, where they get to go to Mass on a weekly basis, I think it gives them the same opportunity that it’s giving the rest of their peers.”
Marianne Arling, Learning Specialist at Nativity: Faith & Reason, agreed.
“All students should be able to receive a Catholic education if their parents want that for them,” she said. “A real advantage of a Catholic school is that we bring prayer into the lives of our students.”
Arling explained that attending a Catholic school shapes a student in ways that no other institution can.
“A Catholic education can provide foundational faith instruction as well as excellent academic instruction,” she said. “It is wonderful that many Catholic schools now offer services for students who need extra help.”