TAUNTON – Prior to the pandemic, Stephanie Gardner initiated the IEP process for her son, Lucas, while in kindergarten at Our Lady of Lourdes School due to her personal experience as a child as well as feedback that Lucas was struggling in some areas of development. The Gardner family had enrolled Lucas into Our Lady of Lourdes School in Taunton knowing that he would require additional assistance for his learning differences. In addition, they chose Our Lady of Lourdes School because of the smaller class sizes and optimal partnership between parents and school, which they knew would greatly benefit Lucas academically and socially.
Thousands of families in southeastern Massachusetts face a similar choice every year for their child(ren) who have learning differences. In fact, the National Center for Learning Disabilities estimates that 20% of children have learning and attention challenges, including specific learning disabilities like dyslexia. While these students are just as capable as their peers, many struggle in school and beyond because they fail to get the support they need. It has been shown that with the right support, they can thrive[i]. “Children with learning and attention issues are as smart as their peers and with the right support can achieve at high levels, but a lack of early or effective interventions leads too many kids on a downward spiral,” says Mimi Corcoran, President and CEO of NCLD.
Knowing that Catholic schools naturally foster each child’s God-given talent in order to become the best versions of themselves, the Diocese of Fall River Catholic Schools Office has made it a priority to equip teachers and staff with training and professional support to accept students with an array of learning differences. Many families find that their local public school system does not align with the values they prioritize, or they believe their child(ren) would benefit from a smaller environment that naturally integrates moral and character development. This is what makes a Catholic education unique and completely different than public and charter educational systems.
“My experience with Our Lady of Lourdes has been excellent,” said Stephanie Gardner. “They walk you through the entire process – from testing to securing services right at the school. The teachers are so accommodating and flexible. If the special education teacher cannot meet with Lucas during the day, she makes sure she sees him while he is at extended care. This high level of care and concern has made all the difference in the world – Lucas’ confidence is definitely coming out and I could not be happier with his progress.”
Meagan Burr, the special education teacher at Espirito Santo Parochial School in Fall River shared that, “As a special education teacher, I personally have witnessed transformational changes within our school community commensurate with the timing of accepting students with learning differences. Not only is a Catholic school environment conducive for these students to thrive, but there is also an impact on the rest of the student body to be more compassionate, empathetic, and patient.”
“As a new principal of the Diocese of Fall River, I am so proud to work for a Diocese that values special education and is committed to the students, families and teachers with supports, professional development, and patience,” said Haley Rogers, principal of St. Francis Xavier School in Acushnet. “God created our students to learn in many different ways; therefore, a Catholic school’s ability to celebrate our God-given talents and differences is more conducive for students to thrive spiritually, academically, mentally, and physically.”
Kerry Peroni, founder and president of the S.E.A.L. Foundation, knows first-hand that, with the right environment, children with learning differences can learn and do thrive. Years ago, she recognized that smaller class sizes and flexibility with the curriculum were necessary ingredients for creating the most conducive environment for children with learning differences. A Catholic school offers such an environment and so much more.
The Catholic school’s natural ability to integrate faith into every aspect of learning is the perfect catalyst to engage in conversations with students about how God makes each and every one of us unique and He gives each of us our own incredible gifts that can look and feel very different,” explained Peroni. “It allows us to change the conversation and look at what each student can do (versus can’t do) and allow that to be the focal point when working with students. With a full commitment to supporting a diverse learning population, Catholic schools provide individual attention along with care and concern that are necessary for developing lifelong skills that lead to academic success.”
Accepting students with learning differences is not only limited to Catholic elementary schools, but high schools as well. Bishop Stang High School in Dartmouth, known for its Pathways Approach Program, is rooted in the Church’s mission to serve a diverse population and the conviction that education should be accessible to all. According to Dan Dias, Vice-Principal for Academics, “Our Pathways Approach Program integrates and provides the necessary supports for young people to flourish and thrive as they prepare to excel in learning and life as a people of faith, integrity, knowledge and service. Students receive direct services and support from special education teachers and are fully integrated into the academic and co-curricular life of the school. More importantly, when students graduate from the Pathways Program, they are not only filled in the areas of faith, knowledge, integrity and service, but they are also fully prepared for college.”
Elise DuBois is a veteran special education teacher at Our Lady of Lourdes School in Taunton. She believes that the school “embodies what Saint Mother Teresa famously said, ‘You can do what I cannot do. I can do what you cannot do. Together we can do great things.’ In setting the example that we are all children of Christ, our students are so accepting of others’ differences. This is one of the many reasons why Catholic schools are such a valuable part of communities.”
All families are encouraged to discuss their child’s specific needs with the principal as part of the admissions process.
The Catholic Schools Office has released a new video that communicates the commitment to special education in the Diocese of Fall River Catholic schools. For details on each school’s special education resources or to watch the video, please go to www.catholicschoolsalliance.org/special-education.
About the Catholic Schools Alliance
The Catholic Schools Alliance comprises administrators, teachers, staff, parents, and clergy joined in partnership to educate the children of the Diocese of Fall River in Catholic faith and values. Our schools have a demanding educational culture that helps students reach their God-given potential across the academic spectrum. With an emphasis on love of others through their service and respect, we prepare students to meet the challenges of today’s diverse world and become meaningful contributors to society by helping to rebuild a culture of life and love. For more information, please go to www.RediscoverCatholicSchools.org.