Updated: May 10
This week, dioceses across the United States commemorate National Catholic Schools Week, a beautiful celebration of the Church's contribution to education. Though awareness and opportunities for children with special needs have increased in recent years, there is still much work to be done to work to ensure that all students can experience the rich educational experience that Catholic schools provide. In 1978, the American bishops released a pastoral statement of people with disabilities, challenging parishes and schools to work towards inclusion:
"Catholics with disabilities, like all Catholics, are incorporated in the Body of Christ as integral members. They, like any other member, belong to the faith community” (NCPD, 2015).
“Ultimately, what is essential is a commitment to one body, one baptism, one Church, and one God. When persons with disabilities are excluded from catechetical and academic programs, a piece of the Body of Christ is missing (NCPD, 2010).”
The bishops are clear: individuals with disabilities belong in our churches and in our schools. And yet, many institutions have not yet accomplished this great task. The National Catholic Board on Full Inclusion attempts to bridge this gap. Through mentorships, conferences and professional development, they work to realize the vision set out by the bishops more than forty years ago in schools across the nation. Beth Foraker, the founder and director, shares more about their work below.
How did the National Catholic Board on Full Inclusion begin?
The National Catholic Board on Full Inclusion began in 2014. My son, Patrick - who has Down Syndrome - had been fully included kindergarten through 8th grade at our local parish school. His experience was phenomenal and his inclusion greatly changed the school for the better. He participated in every way at school. He made all of his Sacraments with his classmates. He attended 6th Grade Science Camp which is a week away from home. He ran for and was elected to student council. He made great academic progress. His classmates were incredible.
The word soon got out that he was included and other families from around the Sacramento area started asking me how to help get their child included. It got to the point that people would call from around the country and it started to feel creepy. You shouldn't have to know Patrick to go to your Catholic school!
In the spring of 2013 I attended a gathering of other Catholic families who wanted inclusion across the country down in southern California. All of us were moms with children with Down Syndrome. We came from all over...about 12 of us. We visited an inclusive school called American Martyrs and then we started talking about how disappointed we were in Catholic leadership across the country.
NO ONE was doing this.
No Bishops or priests were calling for it.
No professors or superintendents.
It felt really discouraging.
That same weekend with these same moms we went to hear Sue Buckley speak. She is an educational researcher from England who specializes in inclusion with Down Syndrome and she basically gave every one of us who attended her speech a Call to Action. She told us that no one else was going to do it. It was on us to build the world our kids deserved. So, at that conference, I went up to a professor from Loyola Marymount who believed in inclusion, Vicki Graf, and told her that I was taking this Call To Action seriously. My words were: "I've been waiting 15 years for someone else to be a leader...where is Notre Dame or Georgetown? Where are the big dioceses? I can't wait anymore. I'm just going to build a national organization to push this forward. Will you be an advisor?" She agreed on the spot.
So, then came the nitty gritty...and the God part.
I needed to build a website. A mom from St. James who built websites for her job worked with me and created it for me. I just dumped everything I had learned over Patrick's experience...my own experience as an educator...my philosophy of inclusion...my photos and connections to other great people doing this work around the country...and everyone pitched in. The website just came together.
Meanwhile, another mom at St. James who is a video journalist agreed to make a video for me about Patrick's experience of being included. She did an incredible job on the most shoestring budget around. And, on November 3rd, 2014, our website launched...our social media presence went live...and we began supporting families and encouraging schools to be inclusive. Want to know something awesome?? Vicki Graf is now working on creating the first fully inclusive Catholic college program with inclusive living at Loyola Marymount...and we are working together on that. She continues to be an amazing advocate and advisor.
What does inclusion in a Catholic school look like? What does it take for a typical Catholic school to become "inclusive"?
You can find our definition of inclusion on our website. My friend, Raul Escarpio, does a podcast called Catholic Ed 4 All and that is his final question of each podcast...what does Catholic school inclusion look like.
For me, it looks like students with disabilities and typical students learning alongside each other. We can see supports in place to help all students. We have a feeling of belonging within the school that ALL students matter.
What does it take for a typical Catholic school to become inclusive?
It just takes an open mind and an open heart. It takes a school to say yes, even when they are not sure they can do it. It takes teachers who believe that ALL students deserve to be in the same classroom together. It takes families of typical students to see the face of God in students with disabilities and those students who struggle. It doesn't need to cost a lot of money. In fact, The National Catholic Board on Full Inclusion gives an award to those schools and educators who just say yes and make it happen without any formal programming or budget. It's called The Dandy Award.
How does your organization help schools make the necessary changes?
Our organization offers mentors: teachers, paraprofessionals, inclusion specialists, priests, superintendents, principals and even people with expertise on specific disabilities, FREE OF CHARGE, to anyone who reaches out to us.
We host an Inclusion Summit at the NCEA every year to support those who are doing the hard work all over the country.
We host an Inclusive Catholic High School Conference every year.
We walk with families who are approaching schools and work directly with schools when they begin.
We do professional development for schools and share resources.
What is the biggest obstacle that your organization encounters? What can we do to overcome those obstacles?
The biggest obstacle is an outdated mindset that "those kids" don't belong in Catholic schools. The second biggest obstacle is the belief that inclusion is expensive and a luxury that the school can't afford. We believe that the hand of God is in this process...and we firmly believe that the children who are included do the hard work for us. Their presence softens hearts and opens minds. So, if we can get the student in the school usually things will work out.
Have you seen instances where making changes to become more inclusive benefitted the school as a whole?
Over thirty years of educational research makes this point for us dramatically. YES!! There is no other way to say this: Including students with significant learning needs helps everyone significantly in ALL areas: academically, social/emotionally, spiritually. It is a big advantage to attend an inclusive school if you are a typical student. Everyone benefits. That's what the data says and that is what the anecdotal evidence says too.
Tell me about some of the successes!
I have SO many!! But here are two:
There was a boy with Down Syndrome who was fully included in a K-8 Catholic school. In 6th grade, a group of boys realized that the big Catholic high school they were going to attend did not have a place for their friend. They didn't have a program. So, that group of boys went to the high school as 6th graders and they brought their friend and they said: "See, Charlie, he's our friend. We want him to go to high school with us. We need you to build a program for him."
And, MATER DEI HIGH SCHOOL did just that.
And in one month, Mater Dei High School will be sharing their insights at our Inclusive Catholic High School Conference.
And then there's this picture:
This is a picture that a kindergartner made for her classmate, Vincenza. Vincenza uses a wheelchair and is non-verbal. Her family moved from Tulsa, Oklahoma to Kansas City, Missouri so that she could attend a typical Catholic school with her siblings...and this picture was given to Vincenza within the first week!! Kids know intuitively how to be inclusive. They get it...and Vincenza's mom was flabbergasted. She couldn't believe Vincenza could make friends so quickly. They can. We just need to get the adults out of the way!
What is your advice to a family starting out on this journey? They want their child with special needs to attend their local Catholic school, but the school does not currently serve any students with special needs. Where should they begin?
My advice is to listen to the whispers of your heart. You know what is best for your child...and it IS possible. Patrick was the first student with Down Syndrome fully included in his parish school and the first in our diocese. There were so many angels on his path...so much grace. It was incredible to see. They should begin with us! That's why we exist- to support families.