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Experiencing the Happiness of an Inclusive Classroom

Thursday, May 04, 2017 by Maggie Byrne

 Maggie Byrne

With Catholic schools around the country looking for the tools to create the culture, foundation, and resources to educate all students inclusively while celebrating every student’s diverse and exceptional characteristics, Notre Dame’s Program for Inclusive Education (PIE) prepares to welcome its first cohort this summer. In this month’s blog post, Maggie Byrne, a parent of a child with Down syndrome and friend of PIE, shares her son Thomas’s journey through Catholic schools that utilized inclusive practices. Many thanks to Maggie for her contributions and willingness to share how Thomas has been welcomed, served, and celebrated in Catholic schools.


"We believed that our child, whom we named Thomas, was a gift from God."

During our third pregnancy, a prenatal test told us that we would be having a child with Down syndrome. As we realized how deeply we already loved this child, we began to prepare for the challenges ahead, though we had no idea what type of roadblocks to expect. But with our extensive Catholic education, our strong, large Catholic families, and our Catholic faith, we believed that our child, whom we named Thomas, was a gift from God.

Thomas was welcomed with open arms in our American Martyrs Parish. Prayers and support were abundant as Thomas endured open-heart surgery, a blood disorder that required the removal of bone marrow when he was four days old, pneumonia, eye and ear surgery, and multiple trips to the emergency room. However, Thomas overcame many of these challenges as he grew and took his place in our family.

"We were blessed that so many people enthusiastically supported Thomas on his joyful new adventure."

When it came time for Thomas to start school, he initially went to the public preschool, which was difficult for Andy and me from the start. Thomas was not with his older sister Kelly or older brother Johnny, and the system put extra strain on us as we tried to ensure that Thomas was safe and properly progressing. The next year, Thomas joined his siblings at the American Martyrs Catholic School (AMS) under the care of Monsignor John Barry and Dr. Kevin Baxter, the principal, and Jeannie Wood, the AMS preschool director. Though no other child with Down syndrome was attending AMS, the school and its teachers opened their doors to Thomas. We were blessed that so many people enthusiastically supported Thomas on his joyful new adventure.

With the help of his teachers, Thomas experienced the happiness of an inclusive classroom. He enjoyed learning with his friends, while his friends discovered how to see past Thomas’s disability to his kind soul. Kelly, Johnny, and their friends could visit Thomas on the playground and see that he was happy and safe. We built a mutual trust and respect with Thomas’ teachers and the school.

"The conversation about inclusion opened wide as it became clear that other parish families had children who also needed support."

The conversation about inclusion opened wide as it became clear that other parish families had children who also needed support, whether with speech, learning differences, or anxiety. We decided to host a get-together to educate families about inclusion while trying to raise money to help with the inclusive practices. The response was overwhelming. We moved the party to a bigger location, sold all of our tickets, were blessed with superstar volunteers, and received fantastic donations. We hosted the “BNICE” party for four more years to celebrate our children’s differences and to raise the funds needed to support inclusion at our school.

In the meantime, Thomas was thriving. He played on the flag football and basketball teams, and he ran for Student Council and made strong friendships. He gave oral presentations in class and participated in group projects. Thomas made his First Communion and First Penance with his classmates while also contributing to school masses. He aced a science test when he had to name over 30 bones, and he participated in science lab. Thomas read novels and studied history. Throughout his educational journey, American Martyrs Catholic School accepted Thomas as a child of God who deserved a full and fulfilling life.

When Thomas was ready for high school, we explored the Catholic school, public school, and charter options in our area, but none of the programs were the right fit for Thomas. However, Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego offered Thomas a spot in their Options program, which includes students with intellectual disabilities into their classes. Thomas is now just finishing up his freshman year. He is a part of the general education classes and works with peer mentors in each class. His classmates elected him to the Homecoming Court. Thomas dances at the school dances, swims with the swim team, and plays tennis. He has friends and peers looking out for him. His confidence has grown, and he is happily preparing for college. With his sister, Kelly at Notre Dame, and peer mentor, Jordan beginning this fall, Thomas will be ready to attend as well. Watch out ND!

"Thomas is not the only success in this story. His fellow classmates and mentors, who had the opportunity to get to know Thomas as a person...have also grown."

Thomas is not the only success in this story. His fellow classmates and mentors, who had the opportunity to get to know Thomas as a person, to see his love, his sense of humor, his kindness, his intelligence, and sensitivity, have also grown. These students experienced what it truly means to live the principles of social justice every day. These students will be the doctors, lawyers, business owners, teachers, clergy, and parents who will hire, raise, teach, support, and accept people of all abilities. Thank you to all the Catholic schools and clergy who prepared Andy and me for this journey and seized the opportunity to blaze the trail with Thomas.

Today, Catholic schools across the country are looking to welcome and best serve each and every one of their students with all their abilities and potential in mind. We have been so happy to learn that Notre Dame is preparing to be one of the leading Catholic universities on inclusion through its Program for Inclusive Education (PIE). We have faith that as support grows for administrators and teachers to learn new ways to include children with varying needs in the classroom, every student will be able to feel the same love and support that Thomas has experienced throughout his journey.


Want to learn more about how you can help serve all of your students? Sign up for our email list below and visit the Program for Inclusive Education at ace.nd.edu/inclusion for more details.