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When Did You Become an Inclusive School?

Monday, March 04, 2019 by
Michael Debri, M.A., M.Ed.; Executive Director/Elementary Principal
Abby Giroux, M.A.; Middle School Principal
All Saints Academy-Grand Rapids, MI

All Saints Academy Grand Rapids - When did you become an inclusive school?

The Program for Inclusive Education is privileged to collaborate with many amazing educators across the country who support and advocate for inclusion in Catholic schools. It is my privilege to welcome Michael Debri and Abby Giroux from All Saints Academy (ASA) in Grand Rapids, Michigan, as guest authors. ASA is committed to opening its door to all learners, and it is a blessing to share their story. Thank you for your tireless efforts for inclusive education!

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

“Now the body is not a single part, but many.
But as it is, God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended. “
1 Corinthians 12:14 & 18

Michael Debri - All Saints Academy

“We can all grow” is a root belief at All Saints Academy (ASA). Over the years, the ASA leadership team has committed to evidence-based professional development for staff that complements our intentional building of an inclusive community, put in place with the help of our colleagues at the University of Notre Dame and the Program for Inclusive Education (PIE). Like the PIE team, we believe that we are called to educate all students regardless of need.

Michael Debri, ASA Executive Director: I was once asked by a consultant, “When did you decide to become an inclusive school?” I paused, pointed to a crucifix in our middle school principal’s office, and replied, “About 2,000 years ago that Guy up there spread a message of love and salvation that wasn't intended for just a select few. Our faith is built upon that message and our schools are built upon that faith.” 

It was a valid assumption. How can we call ourselves “Catholic” schools and not open our doors to anyone who desires to walk or roll through them? Inclusion should be at the foundation of any school whose curriculum is centered around the Gospel.

Abby Giroux - All Saints AcademyAbby Giroux, ASA Middle School Principal: As we have partnered with PIE over the years, we have learned strategies to help our struggling learners, including Positive Behavior Intervention Supports (PBIS). PBIS is a framework that reinforces appropriate behavior and prevents behaviors that interfere with learning by allowing educators to focus on student strengths and desirable behaviors instead of using punishment first. I have become more and more convinced that PBIS is directly aligned to Christ’s commandment to love one another. Jesus took the time to see and talk to the blind man, the woman at the well, and countless others before he offered instructional stories and honest, fair, restorative redirection. We are inspired by Christ to build relationships with our students in order to understand their “why,” then we let that direct our response. Like Jesus, who taught us to forgive 70 times seven, PBIS calls us to continually teach and reteach, celebrate success and redirect students to use positive behaviors. This process is effective because we allow actual data to drive our decisions.

Michael: An inclusive mentality doesn’t guarantee the resources, expertise, or capacity to meet the needs of every learner who enrolls in your school. It isn’t fair to the staff, the parents – and most importantly, to the student – to think that simply welcoming them into the school community is enough. As more and more students with mild to moderate disabilities were filling our seats, it was imperative that we responded with best practices.

Abby: I learned about Positive Behavior Intervention Supports in a classroom management class years ago. It was introduced as “the best building-wide system, but the most labor intensive and hardest to implement.” When I stepped into a leadership role at ASA, the biggest concern I heard from teachers was student behavior. As we worked with PIE and had the “What is PBIS?” session at ASA, I became convinced that the hard work necessary to get an entire school team onboard and working towards PBIS implementation was going to be worth the investment.

How can we call ourselves “Catholic” schools and not open our doors to anyone who desires to walk or roll through them?

While exploring behavioral psychology and PBIS with the PIE team, I was inspired by the value of digging into the data. When discussing behavioral challenges, we often refer to classroom behavior abstractly and say things such as, “This student is ALWAYS blurting out in class” or “This student NEVER turns their homework in.” As we discussed the importance of data with the PIE team, I realized the power of replacing ALWAYS and NEVER with actual, specific numbers. Numbers can help us quantify for parents or support staff the specific challenges we are seeing. Numbers can help identify patterns, such as “This student blurts out mostly in math class” or “This student’s homework is always missing after breaks.” Patterns can help us identify why the behavior is happening and create a plan that targets that need. Using numbers rather than descriptors like “always” or “never” to describe a behavioral challenge allows us to develop a specific response plan that gets at the root of the problem and allows for growth.

Michael: The Program for Inclusive Education has been instrumental in our ability to serve our exceptional learners. We have partnered with PIE in just about every way imaginable. They have come to us here in Grand Rapids to lead professional development with our staff, we have worked through videoconferences, teachers have completed online modules, and two staff members are members of PIE’s second cohort in the licensure program. I can’t say enough about our teachers. The culture of welcoming exceptional learners has always been there. And as we continue to work alongside PIE, I am seeing our school become a place where these exceptional students truly belong.

"We want you here. We will work with you together to develop a plan for your child.”

Abby: ASA’s partnership with PIE has connected teachers with valuable consultants on classroom behavior questions. I’m one of the two staff members who are a part of the second cohort, and the program has provided opportunities for national collaboration with other inclusive educators and allowed for analysis of problems of practice and capstone projects. These projects have helped us implement and evaluate actions plans based on research.

As we have opened our doors and welcomed families and students of varying needs, our partnership with PIE has provided us with valuable resources and support. Our friends at PIE have pushed us to learn and grow, to expand our vision and mission, and to strive to be as inclusive of a school community as possible. Success stories at ASA are possible because of the support PIE and many others have given our teachers, allowing us to all truly say "We want you here. We will work with you together to develop a plan for your child."

In the April 2019 PIE Blog, you will hear from a family who was welcomed to All Saints Academy. Brian and Marcie Schaab will describe their daughter Maya’s unique experience and ASA’s ability and desire to Welcome, Serve, and Celebrate.


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Learn more about All Saints Academy at https://asagr.org