My first night at the NCEA Convention I was privileged to attend the Inclusion Summit where I heard the stories of the great people working to open our doors to students with diverse learning needs.  It was an overwhelming experience that didn’t quite start to make sense for me until hearing Jonathan Doyle deliver the keynote the next day.

“God comes to you disguised as your life” he said.  Often times our schools wonder about their charism or special purpose.  What makes them unique?  And then a parent shows up with a student with special needs.  Or a poor family desperate for a better education.  Teachers and principals wonder if they have the resources to serve the family.  But perhaps that is God coming to your front office asking to be admitted.  God’s presence is disguised in an educational problem—how do we serve all students?

On Monday night, I was able to hear about great organizations like FIRE (Foundation for Inclusive Religious Education) in the Diocese of Kansas City/St. Joseph.  FIRE is expanding to the Dioceses of Dubuque and Springfield, spurred on by parents wanting to open their schools to all students, such as those with with special needs who have older siblings in those schools already.

I met LeeAnn and Tony Armitage from St. Louis who have started the One Classroom Foundation to support inclusion efforts beyond their own child in the Archdiocese of St. Louis.  I met Francesca Pellegrino, the founder of CCSE (Catholic Coalition for Special Education) who couldn’t enroll her own special needs child in Catholic schools and now works to raise money to support Catholic inclusion efforts in DC and Baltimore.  The room was filled with parents, teachers, principals, and supporters who all told their powerful stories.

Can you imagine what it must be like to be told your new child has Down’s Syndrome?  And then to be told that your child cannot attend Catholic school?  Beth Foraker, the President of the National Catholic Board on Full Inclusion, is right to challenge the Knights of Columbus to raise money to support inclusion efforts.  For years, the Knights have championed the Pro-Life cause.  Why can’t they champion the inclusion cause?

The NCEA Convention also marked the publication of “Exceptional Learner’s White Paper: One Spirit, One Body” by Dr. Michael Boyle of the Greeley Center in Chicago and Dr. Pam Bernards of NCEA.  They reference the Pastoral Statement of US Catholic Bishops on People with Disabilities” published in 1978: “defense of the right to life, then, implies the defense of other rights, which enable the individual with a disability to achieve the fullest measure of personal development of which he or she is capable.  These include the right to equal opportunity in education”   In their updated pastoral letter published 20 years later, the Bishops argue, “Costs must never be the controlling consideration limiting the welcome offered to those among us with disabilities, since provision of access to religious functions is a pastoral duty.”

Inclusion is a pro-life issue by celebrating the dignity of every child.  As students with diverse needs seek to enter our schools, it is our obligation to prepare the path and open our doors.

What can you do?  Read the white paper which provides recommendations for student support at all levels—the classroom, the school, the diocese, etc.  It’s a great place to start.  Other readings for you to consider:

  • My April 7th blog post “Including All Students” which was a reflection on my Catholic School Matters podcast on Inclusion & Special Education. The link to the podcast episode is at the end of the post.
  • Here’s a great blog post from a parent describing (and showing via pictures) her son’s journey toward inclusion in a Catholic school.
  • Beth Foraker from the National Catholic Board on Full Inclusion wrote a great blog post last year about a miraculous story of inclusion and then a follow-up post sharing insights.
  • Another great blog post from Beth and a separate inclusive group.
  • A great article from Dr. Martin Scanlan in the International Studies in Catholic Education (there might be a paywall).
  • A couple of articles about inclusivity efforts in Catholic schools here and here.