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Office of Catholic Schools expands team to better serve students with special needs

In his message for the International Day of Persons with Disabilities in 2015, Pope Francis said that the Catholic Church needs the participation of everyone, including those with disabilities: “As we celebrate your International Day, I would like to speak directly to all of you who live with any condition of disability, to tell you that the Church loves you and needs each of you for the fulfillment of her mission at the service of the Gospel.”

Well, our Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Denver need them, too, along with the unique gifts each child brings.

Associate Superintendent of Academic Renewal, Abriana Chilelli, has described the inclusion of children with disabilities in our Catholic schools as mission critical: “Inclusion of children with disabilities is a good in and of itself, a justice to parents who desire Catholic education for their children with disabilities, and we are working hard to broaden our schools’ ability to welcome. When we include people with disabilities in our Catholic schools, we also show the world that people are worthy of love because they exist. People with disabilities are a living presence of the value of human life. Christians know each soul is of cosmic importance, and people with disabilities give witness to this. Our value is not in the world’s perception of our ability or our individual production. Our value is in our existence, as created sons and daughters of the Father.”

For many years, the Office of Catholic Schools has hoped and prayed for a way to offer more inclusion in our schools to children with special needs, and now the Lord has answered those prayers. Superintendent of Catholic Schools Elias J. Moo recently announced that, with the assistance and financial support of the FIRE Foundation of Denver, a new position of a Director of Student Support Services, and a Student Support Services Consultant have both been hired.

After a very fruitful round of interviews, two women rose to the top of having the gifts and talents needed to build a vision for inclusion and build the practices and policies to form our leaders in being able to build Catholic schools inclusive of children with special needs.

The Director of Student Support Services will be Kristen Lanier. Lanier has worked with the Office of Catholic Schools team during the pandemic as the assistant organizational leader of our online St. Isidore Curriculum option that was hosted for students in Catholic schools who needed to learn at home virtually that first year. She is a true builder of programs and relationships and is highly skilled in both. Her vision for inclusion is striking, beautiful, and from the heart of the Church. Lanier has a Master’s degree in Educational Equity and Linguistic Diversity with an emphasis in special education from CU-Boulder. She is a wife and mother of four children, many of whom attend St. Mary-Littleton Catholic School, and has been a supporter of the FIRE Foundation from its beginnings.

Lanier will work on casting and articulating vision for the inclusion of children with special needs in our Catholic schools, building relationships with principals and key people in our schools, supporting those schools that are already serving children with special needs, coordinating professional development after discerning what’s needed, as well as being the touchpoint in the Office of Catholic Schools for parents desiring to enroll their children in our Catholic schools. Her first order of business will be learning more about our schools, principals, and the current state of inclusive practices in our schools, for her to be able to begin to pray and discern what is needed.

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“We desire to begin this work by seeing the beauty of God’s Creation in these students first, and remove the stigma that often comes with diagnoses or labels,” Lanier said. “We must focus on His people, His Creation. Welcoming all students into the beauty of Catholic education is our call, and it is only through intrinsic inclusion that we can fully understand the Body of Christ.”

The new Student Support Services Consultant will be Avery Coats. Coats has an extensive background working in special education programs in a variety of school contexts. She knows best policies and practices for including children with special needs in a school and has a good understanding of the law in regards to special education. Coats is also principal at Wellspring Catholic Academy at St. Bernadette, and thus has an intimate knowledge of our how our Catholic schools run. She will work in a part-time consultancy role, assisting Lanier and the Office of Catholic Schools in the area of special education. Coats will also be working on longer-term projects as well such as the creation of a manual to guide schools in inclusive practices, as well as assisting in writing policy for our schools.

“I am extremely humbled by this opportunity to further join our mission of Catholic schools offering places of refuge, learning and spiritual formation to all children with special needs,” Coats said.

Both of these women will work under the guidance and supervision of Chilelli, who says the most intriguing part to this story was uncovered during the interview and hiring process of the two women.

“Kristen and Avery both attended college at CU-Boulder. Upon hearing that the other person was being considered for the complementary role, both said to me, ‘No way!’ It turns out that about 10 years ago, the two of them were connected through the Catholic circle at CU-Boulder,” Chilelli explained. “They used to meet and talk for hours on a patio outside a coffee shop about their shared desire to build special education in our Denver Catholic Schools. They had fallen out of touch since then, but, now 10 years later, the Holy Spirit has brought them together through this position.”

“What a joy it is to get to play a part in what the Lord wills for this important work,” Lanier said. “We know that the Holy Spirit is at the center of this and with His guidance we will be able to uplift and honor all students. We cannot wait to dive in and welcome students to receive the gift of Catholic education.”

Carol Nesbitt
Carol Nesbitt
Carol Nesbitt is the Director of Communications for the Office of Catholic Schools.
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