Promoting Special Education in Catholic School

By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Francesca Pellegrino wasn't looking for a cause. She just wanted her son Alex to be able to attend Catholic school -- a place where he could pray and practice his faith.

But as she began searching for a school, she found her options limited. Although some Catholic campuses offered programs for children with special needs, there wasn't one that could accommodate her 14-year-old son, who has mild cerebral palsy and intellectual disabilities. She reluctantly enrolled him in Montgomery County public schools.

"I was angry at the whole situation," she said, in part because she wasn't certain the community understood what it meant to have a child with a learning disability.

She soon realized that she wasn't alone. Other families wanted to send their special-needs children to Catholic schools, too, but couldn't.

Now, as the founder and president of the Catholic Coalition for Special Education, Pellegrino, of Kensington, has helped raise more than $120,000 -- money she hopes will go toward hiring special education teachers and establishing programs so that students with special needs can attend Catholic schools.

"This is seed money," she said. "We're not prescribing any particular model. We're leaving it up to the schools."

Before she launched the nonprofit group, Pellegrino rarely spoke publicly about her family's situation or her son's disability. She shares her personal story -- her "crisis of faith," as she calls it -- more now but still finds it difficult to put into words the frustration she felt at being unable to get the education she wanted for her son in a religious school.

Unlike the public school system, Catholic schools are not required by law to provide special education services, even though many do.

"There are always a few children who come to us who have special needs, especially those with developmental disabilities," said Patricia A. Weitzel-O'Neill, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Washington, which includes 112 schools in the District and Maryland. "Some schools have been able to serve those children. We'd like to do this in more of our schools, but in order to do that we need resources."

Pellegrino hopes that beginning this fall, her group will be able to give "start-up" grants to a small number of schools that want to begin or expand programs for students with special needs. The goal is for the schools to eventually be able to fund programs on their own. The $120,000 the coalition has raised is enough to pay for two special education teachers for a year, Pellegrino estimated.

Weitzel-O'Neill welcomed Pellegrino's efforts, which come as the archdiocese is taking a new look at what it offers children with special needs.

"Once that ball gets rolling, it takes on a life of its own," Weitzel-O'Neill said about special education programs. "At almost every school where we've had these programs develop, they've become self-sufficient and successful."

Weitzel-O'Neill said she doesn't know how many of the schools in the archdiocese offer special education services or how many of the estimated 33,000 students have special needs.

Tina Progar of Bethesda remembers looking for a school with a program for her son Patrick, 13, who has Down syndrome. But like Pellegrino, she wasn't able to find a Catholic campus that had the resources to accommodate him.

"All along we've been hoping that there would be a Catholic school for Pat to be included in," Progar said. "It is important to me that Pat be able to live out his faith, that he be able to attend religious classes and be able to pray."

Progar hopes Pellegrino's efforts will allow Patrick, now a seventh-grader, to attend a Catholic high school.

For her part, Pellegrino wants the coalition's efforts to give other families more options when it comes to their children's education.

"All parents want is what's best for their children," she said.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company