Special Education Programs Recognize ‘Intrinsic Value’ of All Learners

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The director of special education in the archdiocesan Superintendent of Schools office said she believes that if a family is looking for a Catholic education, “it is our duty to go above and beyond” to provide one for the child.

“Sometimes that means making suggestions on my end, recommending a specific Catholic school and then working with a principal because I know what is available to meet that child’s needs,” Eileen Murtha recently told CNY. 

“Every child deserves a Catholic education,” Ms. Murtha said, “and I am very proud of our principals and teachers and how they have opened their arms and embraced all God’s children, including those with special needs.”

The archdiocese expanded the Enhanced Special Education Program to three schools in Rockland County in September 2020 and one school in Manhattan in January 2021. The goal of the newly extended program is to improve services in the upper counties and Manhattan to ensure the inclusion of all students in the faith-based, future-focused curriculum, no matter how they learn. 

The eight schools offering the Enhanced Special Education Program are Incarnation School, Manhattan; St. Frances de Chantal School and Our Lady of Mount Carmel School, the Bronx; St. Anthony-St. Paul, Nanuet; St. Gregory Barbarigo, Garnerville; St. Margaret, Pearl River; and on Staten Island: Father Vincent Capodanno Catholic Academy and Our Lady Star of the Sea School.

The two schools in the Bronx and the two on Staten Island are now in their fourth year of the program.

In addition to special needs resources and programs available at all Catholic schools in the archdiocese, the eight schools offer:

  • a certified special education teacher at each school; a dedicated resource room and integrated co-teaching model where certified special education teachers can help children with a learning disability, speech and/or language impairment, mild autism or other health impairments as well as students who are academically “at risk” due to performing below grade level in reading and math.
  • the Wilson Fundations® Program, a provider of research-based reading and spelling programs for kindergarten, first and second grades. Its multisensory, structured curricula have proven to be highly effective in helping children improve their reading and language skills.
  • Learning Ally, which provides access to over 80,000 audiobooks for students in kindergarten through eighth grade who are diagnosed with dyslexia or a physical impairment, or struggle with vocabulary, fluency or reading comprehension.
  • a rotating educational coach to help children cope with the social and emotional components related to their disability.
  • professional development for teaching staff members to further strengthen their ability to work with children with learning and physical disabilities.

Michael Deegan, superintendent of schools for the archdiocese, said “it has always been and continues to be” the mission and the goal of Catholic schools to provide a Catholic education to any child and any family wishing to put their child in a Catholic school.

Equally as important, Deegan said, is to be able to provide access to Catholic schools “for children who have learning challenges and learning difficulties.”

The “flagship special education school” not only in the archdiocese, but in the metropolitan area, Deegan said, is the John Cardinal O’Connor School in Irvington, “a preeminent Catholic elementary school for children with special needs.”

“To the extent that we can advocate to any family looking for a Catholic school education where the children’s needs transcend or are beyond general education, we would encourage them to seek out the John Cardinal O’Connor School because their children will be transformed while they are there.”

He said there are also affiliates “that are not part of the archdiocesan school system that we have partnered with,” including the Cooke School in Manhattan and Bishop Ahern High School on Staten Island.

“We realized several years ago that while these programs are really addressing specific needs of some of the children with special needs, what we needed to do was to broaden our opportunity to have families go to some of our Catholic schools where an inclusion program is provided”—general population, general education for the vast majority of children but also with the creation of the inclusion program, the Enhanced Special Education Program, for children who have special learning needs.

“Because of the generosity of the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation and the Alfred E. Smith Foundation, we have been able to provide special education and programs to children who have special learning challenges in a number of our schools,” Deegan said.

It has been “exceedingly successful to the children in preparing them not just for elementary school but for high school.”

“If we were to identify (additional) funding, we would certainly want to expand the program throughout every region and every corner of the archdiocese,” he added.

Deegan cited Church teaching and the mission of Catholic schools “to value the sanctity and the sacredness of every child.”

Because Catholic schools and Deegan personally “recognize the intrinsic value of every child and providing an opportunity for that child to experience Christ in a Catholic school setting, it doesn’t really matter what their needs are because in the end, every child is cherished, every child needs an opportunity to be nurtured in the faith.”

“And that’s why we are committed to finding funding and opportunities to enable more and more children” who are created in Christ’s image regardless of their challenging needs “the transformational life experience of a Catholic education.”

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