As a former Catholic school principal who sat with parents seeking a Catholic education for their son/daughter who had exceptional needs the realization of the scarcity of resources in Catholic schools was often front and center. There existed a delicate balance between saying yes, enroll your son/daughter and then us doing the best we could, with saying yes enroll your son/daughter and we will invest the resources necessary to make a Catholic education accessible and of value. According to a 2017 CARA Special Report this is often the case. “…schools are [trying] to include children with disabilities, yet, only 73 percent of dioceses say that the schools’ budgets include salaries or resources related to accommodating children with disabilities in at least some of their schools.” The very mission of a Catholic education is the formation of the whole person. In the last sixty years, Apostolic Letters, Pastoral Statements and Popes have pushed for our Catholic Schools to be more inclusive and some schools are responding to the call. While as a Catholic Church we have a way to go in the special education arena there are some front runners making strides in offering options for families with a child who has an exceptional need. The Archdiocese of New Orleans’ website includes a special section for families looking for a school with a Special Needs program. https://nolacatholicschools.org/special-needs-initiative
Recently we, at Meitler, worked with the New Orleans Office for Schools. This work resulted in the opening of a new school to add to their options for families that will exclusively offer an education to children with exceptional needs. The school will open for the 2019-20 school year.
“A St. Thérèse Academy student is one with exceptional needs and/or learning differences who prefers to learn in an exclusive educational setting. Our students learn to recognize their own gifts and talents to grow spiritually, academically, physically, socially, and emotionally in an environment that supports their individual needs and fosters dignity and respect for all. Our students are not identified by a disability but rather celebrated as a unique child of God and encouraged through personalized instruction and assessment to cultivate their gifts towards success.”
By baptism, all Catholics are equal in dignity and have the same divine calling. “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews, or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13). This equality applies broadly to all our dealings with one another; and it applies more narrowly to the access people are given to their basic human rights. Many people in society are marginalized; and, Pope Francis asks each one of us to meet, to come to know and to include those marginalized in our communities with the goal of serving them. Our Catholic schools can, many are, and should be a place where all are welcome and included. As early as 1965, Pope Paul VI, in Gravissimum Educationis stated “All children, in virtue of their dignity as human persons, have an inalienable right to education, adapted to their ability.” In the years that followed this statement by Pope Paul VI, representatives of the Catholic Church have issued numerous documents promoting inclusion in our catechetical and academic programs with the most direct statement coming from Pope Benedict XVI. He said, “no child should be denied his or her right to an education in faith, which in turn nurtures the soul of a nation” (2008). More often administrators in our Catholic schools are enrolling students with exceptional needs even though they may think the school lacks the resources needed to fully meet the needs of children with exceptional needs. But do they truly lack the resources or does the formation of the whole child academically, spiritually, socially, emotionally, and physically make our Catholic schools, while perhaps imperfect in offering everything, the best choice.