The Program for Inclusive Education (PIE) is pleased to update our audience about St. Mary Catholic Central High School (SMCC) in Monroe, Michigan. SMCC began the St. Andre Bessette (SAB) Open Doors program for students with disabilities, and PIE was privileged to collaborate. Kyle McElvany, the school’s director of inclusion and a member of the PIE 3 cohort, provides an update after three short years. Many thanks to SMCC, Kyle, and the families who have entrusted their children to Catholic schools. It is a blessing to welcome, serve, and celebrate every student!
~Christie Bonfiglio, Ph.D.; Program for Inclusive Education-Director
June 6 will be a special day for the Class of 2021 at St. Mary Catholic Central High School as we hold our graduation ceremony. Given the pandemic over the past year, it has been a long road to this point for the class of 2021, but they have made it through! It will be even more extraordinary for Jacob, a young man who is the first graduate of our St. Andre Bessette (SAB) Open Doors Inclusion Program. And as the director of inclusion, a 2005 graduate of SMCC, and a graduate of PIE 3, it will also be an extraordinary day for me.
Jacob is 18 years old and an amazing young man with Down syndrome who came to SMCC as a sophomore in August 2018 at the start of our inclusion program. Since day one, Jacob has made the most of his high school experience. In addition to academics, he has been a part of the bowling team, participated in dances and intramural basketball, and lifted weights with the football team. He has been a photographer and writer for the school yearbook and the manager for the varsity softball team. Jacob pushed himself in the classroom, taking courses such as psychology, world literature, coordinated science, and chemistry, which is his favorite class! Jacob also manages to work part-time at a bakery across the street from our school.
The SAB Open Doors program began as one student and a teacher and has grown to five students and 15 peer mentors. Three short years later, we will see the efforts of our faculty, staff, and students come to fruition when Jacob walks across the stage at graduation.
It has been quite the journey since we started the SAB Open Doors program. Although I had a few years of experience in special education before beginning my position at SMCC and attending PIE 3, I had no idea what “inclusion” really meant. Thanks to the faculty of PIE, Beth Foraker from the National Catholic Board on Full Inclusion, Pope John Paul II High School in Nashville, and Cathedral Catholic in San Diego, we had the vision and inspiration to create our own program. Every program looks a bit different, but many share some of the same features. You have to create one that works well for your school within a framework of best practices.
Our students in the SAB Open Doors program spend no more than two class periods a day working in the resource room, then attend classes throughout the school with their peers. For some courses, they have the assistance of peer mentors. They are fully integrated with academic support.
Our peer mentors receive elective course credit for assisting their student in class, acting as a model for behavior, and communicating with the student’s parents via Google Classroom to recap the day’s events within each class. When training our peer mentors, I use materials and ideas that I learned throughout PIE 3. Peer mentors have learned about the importance of tracking and using data (thanks Christie!), thinking outside the box in regards to instruction (thanks Michael!), and utilizing different forms of technology to best reach their students (thanks Sean!). PIE prepared me to prepare the students for this peer mentor role.
As much as our peer mentors have impacted students like Jacob, I truly believe that Jacob has made as much or more of an impact on the school. I have seen a change in the way our high school students have become more aware of students with disabilities, their gifts, and their needs while working with them. Our faculty – many who did not have much experience working with students with disabilities – have also changed. They have let go of the fear of the unknown and accepted my students...as our students.
As I search for the right words to describe the experience of inclusion and Jacob’s career at SMCC coming to an end, I am filled with emotion and at a bit of a loss. Instead of my words, I decided to ask him for his words. He described his experience:
“When I first started at SMCC, I realized that this was the place I belonged. I feel like I have learned responsibility, discipline, and become stronger in my faith. The peer mentors have done so much for me, they did a great job. The teachers are important to me and help me be a better person. My favorite memory of SMCC is going to the football and basketball games, and going to eat with my friends. I’m happy I am graduating. I’m going to miss this place, but I won’t cry.”
As I write this, Jacob has only six more school days left. We have spent many hours together over the last three years. I’ve been blessed to watch him grow academically and as a young man. He inspires so many and is living proof that a student with disabilities can be successful in a Catholic school setting. However, the greatest part of his story is yet to come. Jacob has been accepted to a local college inclusion program, which he begins in August of 2021. Seize the day, Jacob!
The Program for Inclusive Education has been alongside St. Mary Catholic Central during their journey with this program. It has been a privilege to collaborate with the school, spend time with the faculty and Jacob’s parents and experience this success. The SMCC faculty and Jacob’s family will join us for A Little Slice of PIE on Tuesday, June 8, 2021 @ 7 EST to further tell their story. Don’t miss it!
For more information on the St. Andre Bessette Open Doors Inclusion program at SMCC, visit http://smccinclusion.weebly.com or contact Kyle McElvany at . In addition, if you would like more information on how PIE can assist your school with inclusion, please contact Dr. Christie Bonfiglio Director at or visit PIE’s website for more information and resources.