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 honor to welcome Sean Jorgensen and Jason Linster from Monroe, Michigan, as guest authors. Saint Mary Catholic Central High School (SMCC) is committed to opening its doors to all learners, and it is a blessing to share their story. Thank you for your tireless efforts towards inclusive education!
~ Christie Bonfiglio, Ph.D.; Director of the Program for Inclusive Education
Are we, as Catholic schools, really following the Gospel call to share Christ's message of love and salvation with everyone if our schools are not accessible and affordable to all people, including those from all educational needs and every economic circumstance?
That's the big question that the school board, administration, and faculty of Saint Mary Catholic Central High School have been engaged in dialogue about for some time now. SMCC is a co-educational, diocesan Catholic high school of about 350 students.
"We felt that we weren't being fully authentically Catholic when we were not offering the opportunity of an SMCC education to all families who sought it," said SMCC President, Sean Jorgensen. "If we are going to sing ‚ÄòAll Are Welcome,' our programs and offerings had better reflect that we mean it. The Program for Inclusive Education through ACE has been an invaluable partner as we at SMCC have made the transition to being a fully inclusive school."
SMCC had been responding to the changing academic needs of its community over the past two decades. They had created three levels of learning—Honors/AP, College Prep, and Concepts—to support students with needs across a wider learning spectrum than what a traditional college preparatory curriculum usually offers, while still maintaining a 100-percent college admission rate for their graduates. In more recent years, SMCC created an academic support program and added staff specifically trained to assist students with diagnosed mild to moderate learning disabilities.
"That program met a tremendous need, and students who might have previously left our school or never considered enrolling in the first place began to make significant academic gains," says Jason Linster, SMCC Principal and a graduate of the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program. "We are very pleased with the progress we made with the academic support model, but our long-held dream was always to become a fully inclusive high school, one that welcomed all students, even those with moderate to severe learning disabilities, into the SMCC family."
When this dream was met by an opportunity in the early summer of 2018, all that was left to do was to build a program, hire an inclusion director, and educate an entire staff on best practices in inclusive educationall in a little over two months. That's where Dr. Bonfiglio and her team at PIE came in.
"Based on ACE's reputation and my experience as a Remick Leadership graduate, our first call was to Notre Dame. Dr. Bonfiglio immediately connected us with experts and practitioners around the country who could not have been more helpful and encouraging," said Linster.
"Start with one," the experts said. And so we did. In August 2018, SMCC launched the St. Andre Bessette Open Doors Inclusion Program and welcomed its first student, Jacob, a sophomore with Down Syndrome. In so doing, SMCC became the first Catholic high school in Michigan to offer a full inclusion model.
"PIE is instrumental in our program's development. They are sharing incredible training and resources with us. Christie, Michael, and Sean have provided our whole staff with outstanding in-services. Kyle McElvany, our director of inclusion programs, is part of the PIE 3 cohort and our Peer Mentors have been receiving training and assistance from PIE staff as well," Linster said.
Jacob was joined by SMCC's second inclusion student, Zack, right after the program's launch. Together with their Peer Mentors, an innovative approach to assistance that was encouraged by PIE's staff, Jacob and Zack are now helping to transform the culture at SMCC. "Our entire school community is being positively affected by us becoming a fully inclusive school," Jorgensen said. "I see our faculty, staff and students becoming more welcoming, more compassionate, and more Christian in recognizing the God—given gifts that each and every person has to offer."
SMCC recently created the above video to celebrate its experience with inclusive education and motivate others to join them in saying #YouBelongHere.
Looking to make your school more inclusive? Connect with our PIE Team and learn more about joining our next cohort of inclusive educators!