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Breaking Down the Walls for Students with Special Needs

Monday, April 02, 2018 by Dr. Vincent de Paul Schmidt - Senior Director of Catholic Education for the Diocese of Toledo

Breaking Down the Walls for Students with Special Needs

The Program for Inclusive Education (PIE) believes that all students should be welcomed, served, and celebrated in Catholic schools. It is critical that we break down those walls, open our doors, and live out our Catholic calling to inclusively educate the children of God. Dr. Vincent de Paul Schmidt, the Senior Director of Catholic Education for the Diocese of Toledo and a friend of PIE, provides insight into this practice and the crucial role of the principal in leading this change. Many thanks for his guest authorship!

                     ~Christie Bonfiglio, Ph.D.; Director of the Program for Inclusive Education


"The landscape of Catholic education is not unique–it changes and evolves like all other educational institutions over time."

Principals are expected to lead cultures of change, whether they lead public or faith-based schools. The school principal plays several roles as the building leader-ensuring learning, promoting overall success, modeling effective instructional strategies, and leading through change. The Stanford Educational Leadership Institute examined school leadership and reported, “Principals play a vital and multifaceted role in setting the direction for schools which are positive and productive workplaces for teachers and vibrant learning environments for children.” This sentiment applies to all levels and types of students.

The landscape of Catholic education is not unique–it changes and evolves like all other educational institutions over time. One such change to the educational landscape, in particular Catholic schools, is the potential of students coming to the school’s doors with special learning needs at both ends of the educational spectrum. For many years, these students might not have considered attending a Catholic school.

The school having an understanding of specialized knowledge and the instructional capacity is a legitimate concern for principals. In fact, it is a bit of the chicken and egg equation. Many principals either don’t know the complete capacities of the resources in their arsenal–both physical and human–either because they don’t perceive a need or because they lack the tools to properly audit those resources. In other words, they aren’t asked if they can serve a student, so they don’t know if they even can.

"Determine which teachers currently have or want a degree or licensure in special education..."

I propose that a school might be surprised at all the resources they have to offer. An audit of resources, completed each year, might enlighten an administration to their availability. Many schools have a room or space available that could serve as a resource room. Many schools have ramps and elevators already present that could serve a student with a physical disability. Catholic schools, for years, have cultivated relationships with their local public schools for services, which is essential; however, that relationship could be expanded. Determine which teachers currently have or want a degree or licensure in special education; they can be a resource for struggling learners and students with special needs throughout the entire school. When discussing what services are available, ask the local public schools to be included within their professional development opportunities. If a Catholic school leader wants to extend him or herself into the world of special education, it’s not an insurmountable challenge. A good relationship with your local public schools can lead to:

  1. Testing of all kinds
  2. Resources-online, paper-based, and books
  3. Off-campus therapies
  4. In-service and professional development opportunities
  5. Collaborative opportunities
  6. Parent-support opportunities

Some of the most gifted, creative and positive people in all of society are teachers. Why the notion of a student with special needs entering into a classroom puts the brakes on the creativity of these talented teachers escapes experts. Teachers have a litany of explanations as to why students with special needs do not join their Catholic classrooms:

  • “Those kids won’t come here.”
  • “We don’t have the resources.”
  • “I’m not trained in special education.”
  • “The county does a better job than we could do.”

And a common favorite…

  • “We have never done that!”

Can you imagine a teacher in our Catholic schools saying that about a student that isn’t classified as having learning needs?

Furthermore, research suggests teachers can be successful in any classroom with students, not just a population of students with diagnoses, if they possess two different, but equally important skill sets.

The first are the soft skills that are must haves and cannot be taught. They include:

  1. Personalities conducive to empathy
  2. High level of communication on a variety of levels
  3. Vision for students’ success
  4. Creativity

The second set of skills can be gleaned from university programming, licensure in special education, or peer assistance. They include:

  1. Subject-area knowledge
  2. Collaboration within teaching corps
  3. Preparation
  4. Time management
  5. Multi-tasking
"A truly Catholic environment can be created if there are a greater understanding of learning differences throughout the student body..."

One way of working with struggling learners and students with special needs is planning and engagement. Two key issues guide how to effectively work with students with special needs in a Catholic school. First, good planning is key for an educational program to be successful. This is even more significant for a special education program. More agencies, departments, teachers, and administration have to be working in tandem for an individualized program to find success. Second, all constituents must be equally involved without turf-wars.

The outcomes for a Catholic school can be game-changing. A truly Catholic environment can be created if there are a greater understanding of learning differences throughout the student body and a cadre of supportive parents that see the school as a true community. This is a school where the engaged faculty exists without turf wars and cliques and the entire student population is filled with well-adjusted students who understand the differences they see in school are reflective of society. A truly Catholic environment is one where all educational needs are met regardless of abilities and real and true educational achievement is an expectation.

In the United States, Catholic schools can become the schools that develop programming as Pope Francis calls us when he said, “There are three things that [Catholic educators] must transmit: how to love, how to understand which values and customs create harmony in society. … [Teachers] must aim to build an educational relationship with each student, who must feel welcomed and loved for what he or she is, with all of their limitations and potential. Amen!


Coming to NCEA 2018 in Cincinnati? Stop by booth #734 and visit with Dr. Christie Bonfiglio, Director of the Program for Inclusive Education, from 12-1:30 pm on Tuesday, April 3! Or stop by the ACE Reception at Via Vite Italian Restaraunt on Tuesday evening from 5-7 pm!