By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — The Foundation for Inclusive Religious Education (F.I.R.E.) was founded in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph by parents of children with special needs. They wanted the children to be able to attend the same parish grade schools their siblings and friends attended. That was in 1996. From small beginnings, F.I.R.E. spread throughout the Kansas City area. Now, 17 years later, 71 children with special needs attend their parish schools assisted by 29 Para Educators.
Over the years, word of F.I.R.E.’s success got around and, just last month, three moms and a Special Education teacher from Hamburg, N.Y., near Buffalo, visited Kansas City to learn more about F.I.R.E. and inclusive education and get ideas on how to better the inclusion program at SS. Peter and Paul, their parish school.
It was a whirlwind trip for Bridget Wood, whose 11-year old daughter, Mary Grace, has Down Syndrome; Kristie Stromecki whose son Nicholas has just turned 5 years old; Tracy Zizzi whose daughter Jenny is 6 and in Kindergarten, and Sue Koester, a Hamburg School District Resource Teacher.
The Hamburg District partners with SS. Peter and Paul School to provide special education resources, up to a point. “We have Hamburg staff and SSPP staff sharing the responsibility for Mary Grace’s educational program,” Wood said. “Her Special Education teacher is only at SS. Peter and Paul from 8-10 a.m., each day. So when there is a question or concern after 10 a.m., we can’t solicit her advice for a resolution until the next school day. Currently the public school staff schedule is inflexible due to their staffing other district schools. So the special education team lacks that overall special education leadership throughout the entire school day.”
After visiting several schools, talking with teachers and peer mentors, and observing students interacting in classes, Koester said, “I felt validated with regards to our current programming. We have taken some good steps towards the inclusion process. In fact, I came away thinking we were more on track than I originally thought.”
Wood said later that “their heads were spinning” when they returned to Hamburg, and no wonder. The women spent May 8-9 talking to F.I.R.E. founder and executive director Maura Nulton and F.I.R.E. board president Peggy Van Dyke, touring St. Peter, St. Therese north, St. Elizabeth and Visitation grade schools, and meeting with peer mentors and the special needs coordinators at Archbishop O’Hara High School.
Wood said her daughter “receives 2 hours of Special Education services, a 1:1 personal aide and 30 minutes of speech therapy daily, and two sessions of Occupational Therapy weekly at SS. Peter and Paul school, provided by the Hamburg public school district.
We have a lot of the pieces in place at Mary Grace’s school, but only through visiting schools in Kansas City could I see what we were missing.”
For example, Wood said, “While we were touring St. Elizabeth’s School with the Special Education teacher, Jen Moreland, she noticed that one of the students with special needs was having a problem in the classroom, so she stopped to resolve the issue immediately. Currently, we don’t have the capacity to handle spontaneous educational interventions.”
She said the group was impressed with the special education teachers who acted as the “lead person” for educational programs for all the students with special needs. They worked collaboratively with classroom teachers, paraprofessionals, students and families to create a positive environment for inclusion, Wood added.
She was glad to see something that could be changed immediately at SS. Peter and Paul. “We found the special education teachers also modified the curriculum for the classroom teachers. This is something that can be implemented immediately to accommodate a better inclusion experience. Teachers in Kansas City have professional development resources specific to inclusion that we do not have. Inclusion is not widely practiced in SS. Peter and Paul beyond 3rd grade.”
Koester said she picked up practical suggestions for on-going training with SS. Peter and Paul’s entire faculty. “While we have many seasoned educators, few were exposed to training in the area of special education during their college or post-college training. On-going training is important to the success of any venture in education.”
Wood said it was “awesome seeing a child with special needs sitting along side typical peers in the classroom, and learning at their own pace. Especially because everyone has told me for six years that it can’t be done. It was not a surprise but a dream come true.”
She said they didn’t really see anything that couldn’t be adapted to what was already in place at the school.
A St. Therese resource teacher said her goal as a special education teacher is to reach each child’s individual needs. “I try to have them reach their highest potential by giving them challenging work that will allow them to grow as individuals, feel good about themselves. Allowing them to soar allows them to see their potential. The students feel as if they belong when they are given the opportunity to try new activities, like altar serving, choir and student council.
“It is important for the other students in the classroom to interact with students with special needs through group work, hands-on projects, and peer mentoring. They will have a better sense of what a child with special needs goes through on a daily basis.”
There are 23 peer mentors at Archbishop O’Hara High School — juniors and seniors who elect to take a class in inclusion and mentoring students with special needs. Peer mentoring helps students with special needs feel part of the learning environment and, often, the students help each other learn.
Wood said, “O’Hara peer mentors and teachers described their inclusion program as the ‘heartbeat’ of the school. Each school we visited was genuinely proud of their inclusive educational program and eager to share their best practices for inclusion. The mentor program at O’Hara was such a joy to see. What a great group of kids guided by some very skilled and organized adults. We would love to see if we can develop some peer mentoring with our junior high level students.”
She added, “My hope is that with program improvements, better communication with the team, modified curriculum for the classroom teachers and development specific to inclusive education for the faculty and staff, we will gain the confidence to create a culture of inclusion that we all can be proud of.”
Koester said, “But, our funding sources are predominantly from state monies for mandated educational services and we must work closely with our local public school district to ensure we get our fair share. We provide input to our students’ individual educational plans but do not have the final say. Parent support is key, but the road to a functional plan is at times rocky and convoluted. How nice it would be to write our own.”
Staffing is also a challenge, she said. “After speaking with our principal, I found myself wishing we could have access to a special education teacher all day long for our students with Down syndrome. Often problem-solving can be more effective if the circumstances can be seen by all the ‘game planners’ and not just the personal aide or general teacher.
“I believe the dedication to special education in the schools we visited was obvious and heart-warming to see as a Catholic. Fueled by that vision I hope to become a better advocate for inclusion within SS. Peter and Paul school and in Hamburg.”
Nulton added, “A parent of a child with special needs must be a constant advocate for them,” she said. “Advocating in their best interests takes a lot of time, emotion and effort. I hope they are blessed, as we have been, with a bishop, a school superintendent and a diocese that supports and promotes inclusion in the schools.”
Wood said they have already taken the step of presenting their findings to their pastor and principal to gain support for implementing changes that would benefit students with special needs, as well as their classmates. The moms and Koester now plan a presentation to the Diocese of Buffalo to “inform them of the improvements to the program and curriculum and gain further support.”