A ‘Little Way’ for students with special needs
Paul Dusseault

A ‘Little Way’ for students with special needs

By Paul Dusseault

COLORADO SPRINGS. Pia Flynn and her brother, Davey, attend the same Denver Catholic grade school.  They ride in the same carpool, they both name P.E. as the favorite part of their day, and when they pass each other in the hall they share a hug.  Pia has Down syndrome; Davey does not. They attend the same school due in part to the FIRE Foundation, an institution that provides Catholic schools funding for teacher training, specialized instructors, and adaptive technologies pertinent to students with special educational needs.

In Colorado Springs, an effort is under way at St. Gabriel Classical Academy to launch a diocesan-wide funding initiative similar to those operating in Denver, Milwaukee, Dallas, Kansas City and other American cities. Kristen Calvani, a speech pathologist and mother of three, now is fielding the Little Way Foundation, a 501 (c)(3) organization she hopes will soon be in a position to address the need.

 “Many families with children who have special educational needs are eager for Catholic education, but they are directed only to public schools due to a lack of resources at Catholic schools,” she said.  “Our goal is to work with Colorado Springs Catholic schools in order to help provide funding for things like reading interventionists, speech therapists, occupational therapists, paraprofessionals, and training for teachers. ” 

Calvani currently is recruiting board members and seeking volunteers.  Fundraising events are being scheduled for the fall and she plans to have the Little Way Foundation up and running by 2025. 

The challenge is long-standing and well-known in Catholic education. “Our situation now is a real hodge-podge of attempts to serve families with students who don’t fit the norm,” said Sheila Whalen, Superintendent of Schools for the Diocese of Colorado Springs.

“Some of our schools modify the curriculum for such students, others provide training for their teachers, others pull some students out of traditional classrooms for an hour or two each day, some, due to sheer coincidence, have teachers on staff already trained to provide personalized instruction, but there is little diocesan-wide consistency in our approach or professional development. We’d love to see that change in the near future.”

Whalen admits that providing resources for students with special educational needs may raise other issues in the educational system. “Every family needs to feel confident that we are doing the best we can do for every child,” she said.  “We don’t want to accept a student if we feel we cannot help them grow.  So, we may have before us a substantial ramp-up for teachers and principals to determine the expectations we have for such students and provide appropriate assistance during the school day.”

Since the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1975, federal funds have been made available to schools nationwide for special education and programming for children with physical and intellectual disabilities. But because such funds are administered by public school districts, they are distributed with the assumption that public schools are a parent’s best option. Result: federal dollars don’t typically reach Catholic schools.

“Nobody is saying that Catholic schools are intentionally shutting out children with special needs,” said J.D. Flynn, editor of The Pillar and a Denver parent of three children, two of whom have Down syndrome.

“My wife, Kate, and I often talk to pastors, principals, and teachers who want to enroll such kids, but they are intimidated by the requisite commitment of money, time, staffing, facilities, and teacher training in a system that already is stretched thin. Any new channel of resources would empower such schools to enroll more students with learning differences.”

Flynn, who also serves on the Denver FIRE Foundation board of directors, notes that newly available funds would address multiple related challenges.

“First, it would allow families like ours to put all their children in the same Catholic school rather than separating siblings among various institutions as is often the situation now,” he said. “Second, the research indicates that student with special educational needs do better socially and emotionally in a mainstream school environment.  Third, the data show that all students tend to do better academically in classrooms that include students with special educational needs because teachers learn to accommodate different learning styles across the board.  But the last and perhaps most Catholic benefit is the inevitable growth in empathy among all students.  Catholic schools understand what it means to be a person, and what our lives are for.  In that sense, Catholic schools are far better suited for children with intellectual disabilities because their mission is not to educate for test taking, but for Christian living.”

Superintendent Whalen agrees. “Catholics are called to live their belief in the sanctity of life,” she said. “Looking for ways to include children with special educational needs is an extension of our call to compassionate Christian service. Ultimately, it’s a pro-life position.”

Kristen Calvani’s Little Way Foundation has big things planned.

“My experience as a speech pathologist working with students with learning differences is that academic progress often can be small, very gradual, and even invisible to the observer,” she said.  “But St. Thérèse of Lisieux taught a simple approach to the spiritual life that seeks to do tiny, ordinary things with extraordinary love.  She called it the ‘little way.’   She taught that God can take our small acts — performed with obedience and patience — and accomplish great things.” 

(Paul Dusseault is a freelance writer for The Colorado Catholic Herald.)

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