The Program for Inclusive Education (PIE) is pleased to share the following piece from Kevin Baxter. Dr. Baxter has served as a principal and superintendent in Los Angeles, and now leads the Remick Leadership Program at ACE. His perspective on inclusion through a leader’s lens is insightful, yet practical. Having conversations with parents, understanding what a school/diocese can currently provide, and creatively exploring ways to include and plan for students with different abilities are paramount. PIE is grateful to all schools/dioceses that reject the reflexive “no” and intentionally seek to welcome, serve, and celebrate every student!
~Christie Bonfiglio, Ph.D.; PIE Director
My history with inclusion in Catholic schools began in the late 1990s in Los Angeles, where I taught middle school math and science and was the vice principal at a K-8 school. I started the first Student Success Team (SST) as I was completing my master’s degree at Loyola Marymount University. From there I became a principal at two schools, and then superintendent in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. At every stop along my leadership journey, inclusion for all children was a vital part of my work, and I cherish the memories of working with families and teachers to develop different strategies to support students. In my interactions with Catholic educators around the country, I have found a strong commitment to the ideal of inclusion and a belief in the overall mission. That being said, for many the inevitable logistical challenges of cost and how to structurally implement a program can overwhelm even the best of intentions. I think this stems from the fact that working with students with special needs is a complex issue – the needs are all different and each student may require unique supports in order to reach full potential.
An important point for Catholic school leaders to understand is that we will always be limited in what we can provide because of the limited resources in comparison with our public school counterparts. However, we should not have the expectation that success is doing everything for every child. It is simply doing something, and often stretching ourselves a bit to imagine a more inclusive learning environment. This starts by rejecting the standard, reflexive response that Catholic schools have given to parents of students with needs for decades of our history: no, we can’t serve your child, they will have to go to the public school instead. Rather, here are two considerations for Catholic school leaders to think about as they work to make their school more inclusive and to reject the reflexive response of no.
Often when I experienced pushback from teachers or parents regarding a student with special needs, it was framed in an academic context. The implication being that if a child with additional needs was in the general classroom, it would detract from the education of the other students. My first response to this would be that we are a Catholic school, not a private school, and our aim in education runs much deeper than the utilitarian function of teaching academics. Our expectation for student growth is not simply cognitive, but spiritual, emotional, and social as well. In my experience, having students with various needs in the classroom added to the richness and diversity of the learning environment, and allowed students to grow in a multitude of ways, including academically.
The other response is that if you remove a child from a classroom of 30 students because he or she is an outlier academically, you simply create other outliers. There has never in the history of education been a homogenous classroom of 30 students. There will always be a variety of needs and differentiation will always need to occur in order to effectively educate students. A wise teacher colleague once summed this up beautifully to me by saying, “When I see a student’s learning challenge, I see it as my challenge for how to effectively address it.”
The second consideration for Catholic school leaders is to always be honest and transparent with families about the schools’ capacity. As I said, I find that the vast majority of Catholic school educators want to do as much as they can to support all students. In my experience, issues arise when there is a disconnect between parents’ expectations and the school’s capacity to support the student. Many children who have needs will have a public school IEP or a 504 plan that specifically addresses the issues and also outlines what supports the public school will provide if the student is enrolled in the school. The Catholic school leadership and teachers should review the IEP and decide what aspects of the plan they can support, and (almost more importantly) what aspects they cannot. A meeting should then take place with the parents where it is clearly communicated to them what the school can do if the child is enrolled in the Catholic school, and also what the school is unable to provide.
I have found multiple times in my career that parents will choose the Catholic school even though some of the supports and interventions will not take place. There are multiple reasons for this, but the primary point to stress is that this approach ideally eliminates the disconnect between school and home with regard to classroom supports for the student. Being honest and transparent about what the school can and cannot do results in alignment between the parents and the school and allows for a more productive learning experience for the student.
I will close with a story that demonstrates the power of Catholic school inclusion. At one of the schools where I was principal, we had a student with Down syndrome named Thomas. His mother told me that when she would be out with Thomas at the store, children especially would often look quizzically at him because he looked different. But numerous times a young child would see him and yell, “Thomas!” and run over to say hi because they knew him from the school. This would lead to wide smiles all around. That strong sense of community is a hallmark of Catholic schools, and a primary reason why all Catholic school leaders and educators should make every effort to ensure that all students are welcomed.
The Program for Inclusive Education (PIE) is accepting applications for PIE 6. Information about programming and the application portal can be found ace.nd.edu/inclusion/apply. PIE urges Catholic school principals to begin building a culture that avoids the reflective response of no by providing support to welcome, serve, and celebrate students inclusively!