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Denver’s Catholic schools embrace ‘God’s work’ of including kids with special needs

Choosing a school for your child or children is no small task, as any parent can tell you. Which is the “right fit?” What are the teachers and staff like? The other students? How is the education? A million factors enter into such a decision.

For many families, there’s another daunting consideration: resources for their children with special needs and/or disabilities. Will the school be able to accommodate or adapt to their child or children’s needs? How will other children treat their child/children? Will they have a place at this school?

In the already tumultuous experience of choosing a school, these parents have a lot more to think about.

Here in the Archdiocese of Denver, many schools are stepping into those concerns and making serious strides toward a more robust resource system for these children and families, all because of our Catholic faith.

“Catholic schools who are including students with special needs accept the Church’s teaching that all people belong in our schools and parishes,” said Jill Hall, whose daughter is a student with special needs at Most Precious Blood Catholic School in Denver. “[Children with special needs] are an integral part of the Body of Christ and should not be turned away.”

“In Catholic schools,” she recounted, “especially as the schools embrace and learn inclusive practices, there is a desire to include people with different skills or needs because it is what our faith guides us to do. Small “c” catholic means universal.”

Indeed, agreed Colleen McManamon, principal at Most Precious Blood School. “It’s tough on parents to continually be turned away for one reason or another. For whatever reason, there’s a group of kids who are lost. This is our Gospel call, to serve our children who might learn differently. It’s not incumbent on the child to meet the system. It’s incumbent on the system to meet the child where they are.”

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It should be noted that it’s a “tall order” for the system to meet the child where they are, McManamon told the Denver Catholic. Even with incredible faculty like Cathy Collins, Marla Smith, Chanin Strassburger and Theresa Burke, who are working with McManamon on these systemic changes to serve students with special needs more effectively, the effort “poses quite the challenge,” McManamon said.

“For the schools that endeavor to do this, it’s about faithfulness. When you can’t see the vision, the next step, that’s a real scary faith moment. This is a whole new way of doing school. But it’s not ok to stay where you are.”

Despite the practical, professional, logistical and financial challenges that such an integral change to the system pose, McManamon is convinced of the importance of the effort, calling it “God’s work.” “This is going to blow in new life; it’s going to bring blessings into our schools that will serve all. All children benefit from this, but it’s hard work.”

“It is the joy of our Catholic schools to see and serve the image of the Creator in each student,” Kristen Lanier, Director of Student Support Services for the Office of Catholic Schools, told the Denver Catholic. “It is a matter of seeing students as perfectly created, just as they are, as children of God, and then meeting them in their unique needs.”

“Why inclusion?” asked Abriana Chilelli, Associate Superintendent for Academic Renewal for the Office of Catholic Schools. “Inclusion flows from the mission of our schools. That mission is to form children to receive God’s love. And inclusion is not just about kids with disabilities — inclusion helps every student in a Catholic school to receive the love of God.”

“All students benefit from inclusion,” she continued, “because learning to love people who are different from us, who have different kinds of gifts, who express and experience the world differently from us — all of that teaches us how God loves us. And in fact, learning how to experience what disabled people give witness to — learning how to experience moments of need, of inadequacy, of dependence on another — that, too, reveals to us all a great deal about the Father’s love for each of us, his own sons and daughters, and our need for him.”

While there is still much work to be done and schools across the Archdiocese are asking hard questions, examining their systems and seeking more resources and training, the effort is certainly something to honor as a gift from God.

“Our lives have been made so much richer because of our daughter’s unique circumstances — but can’t any parent say that about any one of their children?” Hall concluded. “We all just want our kids to be healthy and happy. We want them to have friends and to be safe in their environment. With this commonality in mind, when our family is accepted as any other family would be, we know we belong.”

André Escaleira, Jr.
André Escaleira, Jr.
André Escaleira is the Interim Managing Editor of the Denver Catholic and El Pueblo Católico, as well as the Digital & Social Media Manager for the Archdiocese of Denver. Originally from Connecticut, André moved to Denver in 2018 to work as a missionary with Christ in the City, where he served for two years.
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