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A Place at the Table

Tuesday, October 01, 2019 by By: Diane Freeby - Program for Inclusive Education

A Place at the Table - Program for Inclusive Education at the University of Notre Dame

“We are better together…Everyone has ideas to bring to the table!  To be inclusive reminds us of what it means to walk like Christ did.”

– Monica Choquette 
PIE 2 Educator and Resource Teacher at the Basilica School of St. Mary in Alexandria, Virginia

Inclusive educators from around the country gathered on the campus of the University of Notre Dame this past July, wrapping up their last semester of coursework in the Program for Inclusive Education (PIE).

In addition to a variety of national experts who spoke about how to teach inclusively (exploring law, advocacy and sensory regulation), we were joined by three young men who embody the very reasons why we must be inclusive educators.

Patrick Foraker, Chris Freeby, and Nolan Smith know what it's like to seek inclusion in the classroom. Like everyone, these young men have many strengths and beautiful gifts to contribute. Each also has his own special challenges in life – Patrick and Nolan happen to have Down Syndrome and Chris is diagnosed with mild cerebral palsy. Fortunately, they each have families and others who love and advocate for them in the Catholic and public school realm. This advocacy is essential in helping educators to understand the importance of inclusion.

But for many students who learn differently, roadblocks such as ignorance, misunderstanding and fear on the part of others often prevent them from receiving the educational experience they want and need. PIE is making a difference in the lives of many who truly believe in Catholic education.

Program for Inclusive Education at the University of Notre Dame

Patrick, Chris, and Nolan participated in a panel discussion during the PIE 2 summer semester so educators could hear first-hand why inclusion is so important and why it can be especially difficult to achieve for those who learn differently. The young men shared their experiences of feeling different, finding their place in the community and what life looks like after high school and beyond. Beginning this month, we will be sharing more from these interviews via social media so be sure to keep an eye out for those!

Meet Patrick Foraker

Patrick Foraker - Program for Inclusive Education at the University of Notre DamePatrick is currently a sophomore at George Mason University, over 2,500 miles away from his home in California. The 20-year-old talked about attending the same Catholic elementary school as his siblings, and what it meant for him to be included. Patrick was welcomed into the school community, able to fully participate and explore his interests. He described the thrill of being elected to Student Council where he served as the activities manager.

Patrick was not only the first student with a disability to be accepted by his parish school, but also the first to be accepted by his diocese. It was transformative as teachers saw needs of all their students, differentiated learning and as studies are showing, became better teachers across the board.

But when Patrick was not accepted to the same Catholic high school as his classmates, that hurt.

“I was sad,” recalls Patrick. “I just felt rejected.”

His and his family’s can-do attitude prevailed and Patrick eventually enrolled in Da Vinci Charter Academy in Davis, CA where he continued to thrive and feel truly included. He graduated with a California high school diploma.

“I have great attitudes,” smiled Patrick, who aspires to one day be a movie director. “I have great talents and skills…and I make it happen!”

Now beginning his second year of college, Patrick shares many of the same interests of his peers despite the challenges. He didn’t hesitate to tell us his favorite Shakespeare plays are Macbeth and Romeo & Juliet.

"Our typical kids will benefit from that student with an intellectual disability by being empathetic, compassionate, and understanding what their world is like." - Patti O'Donnell

“Yeah, I’d have to say those two are my all-time favorite movies and plays because I always like the tragedy and romance,” he admitted. “I’m all about that!”

Patrick inspired PIE 2 educators with the unlimited possibilities when inclusion is embraced.

PIE 2 educator and grade school principal, Patti O’Donnell says she sees how inclusion will radically change and improve the experience for all her students.

St. Pat’s will benefit from inclusion,” she smiles confidently, “because it’s our society. Our typical kids will benefit from that student with an intellectual disability by being empathetic, compassionate, and understanding what their world is like. And the student with the intellectual disability will be able to see modeling. Our kids have students with intellectual disabilities on their baseball teams, they see them in church, they see them in the store. But they don’t see them in our school.”

That’s something that PIE aims to change, one educator and one school at a time.

Meet Chris Freeby

Chris joined us from Colorado where he is working and living independently after growing up in South Bend and attending Catholic schools for 12+ years. Inclusive education wasn’t a formal option during those years, but Chris says he was blessed with teachers who did their best despite lack of resources and experience with different learners. They relied on a gifted resource teacher who herself had overcome a learning disability and became a teacher with a special place in her heart for children of all abilities. But while Chris enjoyed being in the same school as all his siblings, he did not like being singled out.

"It was important that I did not get pulled out of the classroom and that the teacher actually knew my accommodations." - Chris Freeby

“It was important that I did not get pulled out of the classroom and that the teacher actually knew my accommodations,” says Chris, who struggled greatly with reading comprehension. “The more I was in the room with the rest of my classmates, the better I felt. When I was in grade school, there was something just tailored for me, and it kind of bothered me in a sense, because it didn’t give me interaction with the other kids my age.”

Chris says things improved when he moved on to Saint Joseph High School. He was pulled out of the classroom much less often because there was more variety of classes and levels of instruction. He thinks a program like PIE is very important, especially for the earliest years of education.

“There is a need for teachers, especially in K-8, to open up those areas where you might have someone like me.”

“There is a need for teachers, especially in K-8, to open up those areas where you might have someone like me.” - Chris Freeby

In addition to being with his siblings, attending a Catholic school was important to Chris because it helped him grow in his faith life. That happened inside the classroom with daily theology classes, but mostly it happened outside the classroom. Chris participated in the March for Life, traveling to Washington, D.C. with hundreds of his classmates and hundreds of thousands of other young people from around the country. It was during that time that he made life-long friends who encouraged him to continue to grow in his faith.

Being manager of the football team stands out as well.

“It wasn’t all football,” explains Chris. “Football Fridays kicked off with a Mass for the football team. It was after school. Down in the locker room, we got our meetings going then went to Mass. I feel like praying before an event - no matter what it is, sports, a trip – St. Joe really showed that was important.”

Chris says the culture at St. Joe gave him many opportunities.

“Everybody had to do service hours and I feel like that prepared me for my first job out of high school. My service hours were at a hospital, and I got hired by the hospital after high school. So, I feel like it not only taught us well but prepared us well for the world ahead.

Chris was encouraged to hear about PIE, and says he is impressed that so many people care enough to go back to school for more training!

“It showed how many teachers care about inclusive education,” adds Chris. “PIE will make it possible for teachers to help even more students!

Meet Nolan Smith

Program for Inclusive Education at the University of Notre Dame Nolan is a recent graduate of Lawrence High School in Kansas, but never had the opportunity to attend a Catholic school. His dad, Dr. Sean Smith, says the resources and supports just weren’t there so they focused instead on achieving within the public-school system.

My teachers helped me feel included in all the class activities,” recalled Nolan. “Being included in school just makes me feel good! Being around my friend groups and being able to attend school activities makes me feel included.”

Given his family’s and professionals’ advocacy for specialized supports, Nolan graduated with a diploma. He participated in show choir, Student Council, was the manager of the Lawrence High School baseball team and was named 2018 Homecoming King by his peers. 

Singing has been a dream of Nolan’s since he was little, and one teacher at his high school, Mr. Randy Frye, made a big difference just by taking time to get to know his students.

"Being included in school just makes me feel good!" - Nolan Smith

“Mr. Frye inspires me,” says Nolan, explaining how his choir teacher took time to help him with his speech and diction. This encouraged him to follow his musical passions. “I was able to learn how to sing with a great supporter that supports me really well in my academic life. In choir, learning how to sing helps me to be a better person.

Mr. Frye made special recordings of the music used in class and sent those recordings home with Nolan so he could practice and review. Now Nolan hopes to pursue a singing career, all because his teacher took an interest.

In addition to serving as manager of the baseball team and competing with the swim team, Nolan discovered another sport – running! As a member of the Marathon Club, Nolan says he completed a marathon by running or walking around the school building with his peers twice a week. When the team approached the marathon goal of 26.2 total miles, Nolan’s friends from his little league baseball team ran the last leg with him as he crossed the finish line.

“When I ran through this big piece of string and my friends started cheering, that was the happiest day of my life!” 

"When I ran through this big piece of string and my friends started cheering, that was the happiest day of my life!" - Nolan Smith

After celebrating his graduation from high school, Nolan enrolled in Project Search where he is gaining job experience under the guidance, support and direction of school personnel. The program offers a partnership with the University of Kansas and Lawrence Memorial Hospital. Nolan is participating in the hospital program and upon completion hopes to enroll at KU’s two-year postsecondary program for individuals with intellectual disabilities and developmental delays.

Nolan, when asked if he had any advice for others who might struggle with school, the energetic young man was quick with his reply:

“Yes, I do, actually! The advice I would give them is to always stay focused and always be outgoing and to always be hard-working.”

Celebrating Every Student

That is precisely the PIE vision: to equip Catholic schools with a culture, foundation, and the resources for educating all students inclusively. In doing so, we celebrate every student’s diverse and exceptional characteristics, allowing them to fully embrace their God-given potential.

"These young men have something important to say and should be heard." - Dr. Christie Bonfiglio

Students like Patrick, Chris, and Nolan are the inspiration behind PIE and we were honored to have them on campus this summer to share their perspectives. Hearing from real students with real experiences helps our educators fully embrace the mission of inclusivity.

Beth Foraker, Patrick’s mom and founder of the National Catholic Board on Full Inclusion, paid us a wonderful compliment after this summer’s panel discussion, thanking PIE founder Dr. Christie Bonfiglio for “handing the microphone to those who rarely get a chance to speak.”

Dr. Bonfiglio says handing the microphone is the easy part, and that these young men have something important to say and should be heard.

“Changing hearts and minds about inclusion of individuals with disabilities is the hard part,” she adds. “Thank you to all who advocate for this mission!”

Do you have a passion for including all students in your school? Join our next cohort of Inclusive Educators! 

Start Your Application Today!