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More Catholic schools reaching out to special-needs students

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 23, 2010; B01

A math class for students with intellectual disabilities at Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax practiced naming dates on a calendar one recent morning and deciphering what time it is when the big hand is on the 10 and the little hand is on the 11. But first, the teacher led them in a prayer.

"Father in heaven, we offer you this class and all that we may accomplish today," they said together.

Federal law requires that public schools offer a free, appropriate education for students with disabilities, and federal and state governments subsidize the higher costs of smaller classes and extra resources. Catholic schools have no such legal mandate, and financial constraints have historically made it difficult for them to offer similar specialized services.

That is starting to change.

Forty-two percent of Catholic elementary schools in the United States had a resource teacher to help students with special needs in 2008-09, up from 28 percent in 2001-02, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. The Arlington County-based group hosts conferences to help schools establish relevant programs and offers scholarships to teachers pursuing special-education degrees.

"Children with disabilities have a right to a faith-based education," said Bernadette McManigal, superintendent of Arlington Diocese Catholic schools. "We want to provide that as best we can."

Many Catholic schools now offer support for students with learning disabilities such as attention-deficit disorder or Asperger syndrome. The portion equipped to enroll students with intellectual disabilities, historically defined as those scoring below 70 or 75 on an IQ test, is still small, but it, too, is growing.

In the Washington Archdiocese, which covers the District and part of Maryland, one school offered services for students with intellectual disabilities in 1998. Now, six of 61 elementary schools serve such students, and two more -- the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament School in the District and St. Mary's School of Piscataway in Clinton -- are starting programs next year. Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville plans to join them in the next two years.

Many new programs in the District and Maryland have been helped by a fundraising group called the Catholic Coalition for Special Education. Since 2004, it has awarded grants worth more than $400,000 for schools to hire special-education teachers and help teachers pursue degrees in special education.

Francesca Pellegrino of Kensington started the organization after a futile search for a Catholic school for her son. Alex, now 18, has intellectual disabilities and attends Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda. "It never worked out for us, but I am committed to helping other families who want a faith-centered education for their children," Pellegrino said.

In Northern Virginia, Pope John Paul the Great Catholic High School opened two years ago in Dumfries with a program for students with intellectual disabilities. St. Mark Catholic School in Vienna is the only elementary school in the Arlington Diocese with a similar program.

The "Options Program" at Paul VI High in Fairfax was started in 1998 by parents who wanted the same Catholic education for all their children, including those with intellectual disabilities. The parents found a model program at a Catholic school in Seattle, approached Paul VI leaders with a proposal and helped raise more than $200,000 to get it off the ground. A decade later, the program has 10 students and 36 alumni, and it has become a model for six programs across the country.

It's still funded partly through donations, and families pay higher tuition -- about $2,700 above the annual $9,740.

At Paul VI, students in the Options Program work in small groups in a separate classroom, learning core academic subjects. Often, they get extra help from nondisabled students who volunteer to tutor during their study halls.

Disabled students take a special course focused on life skills, including appropriate social behavior and basic job training. They can also enroll in mainstream elective courses, such as health, psychology, public speaking and fashion merchandising.

After classes, many take part in school plays or the Special Olympics. Some go out for cheerleading or the wrestling team.

Karen Hoppe of Fairfax said her family chose Paul VI primarily to provide a religious education for their son Greg, who graduated last spring.

"Faith comes very easily and naturally to him," she said. "We knew he would do well in an environment that allows him to speak that language."

But the emphasis on faith also creates a more accepting social environment, she said. Her son made lots of friends and graduated with sharper social skills that are helping him as he enters the working world, she said.

Hoppe said the other students "are not plastic saints."

"They are normal teenagers," she said. "But they look at our kids differently. They understand our kids have innate value and worth because we are all God's children."

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