When I was a junior at Creighton Prep, I signed up for a course which changed my life. “Awareness Workshop” was a combination social studies, English, and theology class which met in the afternoons. Two days a week, we were assigned a service project instead of seat time. I was sent to Madonna School and I worked with special education students at the great little school. I wish I could say I taught them many great things. But the reality is they taught me far more—about the joy of riding a bike or swimming like it was the first time they had ever been in water. I learned patience, I learned compassion, I learned what it meant to be human. Coming out of that class, I knew that becoming a “man for others” would be my life’s work.
As I have become aware of the debate about including special education students in our schools, I often think back to that formative experience at Madonna School. As I began this podcast project, I was determined to bring the issue of inclusion to the forefront. I returned to Madonna School and its visionary president, Jay Dunlap, who also happened to a teacher at Prep when I was a student.
Dunlap speaks about his personal experience of growing up with a brother with special needs shaping his desire to continue the mission of Madonna School. He advocates for these students as children of God deserving the best kind of education we can provide. Madonna is truly a Catholic school because of who we are—people of service determined to bring God’s love to all.
My first guest, Beth Foraker, is a tireless advocate for including students with special needs into all of our Catholic schools. Her experience as a teacher and a mother with a Down’s students stoked her fire to bring Catholic education to all. She points out that the argument against inclusion (“We don’t have the money or resources”) is a red herring. “People want to be a part of something noble and good,” she argues. And what could be more noble than bringing Catholic education to students with special needs? There are donors out there who want to support these efforts.
Dan Sherman, the third guest, is the epitome of a school leader imbued with a growth mindset. Sherman had no background in special education but was determined to design a new type of school that would serve all students. In the first 11 years, St. Madeleine Sophie in Bellevue has provided a model for what Catholic schools can be—inclusive, rigorous, and loving.