By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — As the 2016-17 school year begins, 158 children with significant special needs are excited to start classes with their brothers, sisters and friends at 11 Catholic grade schools and two high schools in Kansas City.
But they’re not the only ones. Another 541 students with learning disabilities or who need a little extra assistance benefit from the availability of special education support. In all, this academic year, 4,864 students are supported and enriched by inclusive education and so are their families.
How does this happen? FIRE Foundation is approaching 20 years of supporting inclusive Catholic education in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. Since 1996, when six families founded the Foundation for Inclusive Religious Education, opening doors for children who might not otherwise be able to attend the same schools as their siblings and friends, FIRE has grown and expanded, providing nearly $3.4 million in grants since 1998 to its partner schools. This year those schools are Holy Cross, Nativity of Mary, Our Lady of Hope, Our Lady of the Presentation, St. Charles, St. Elizabeth, St. Patrick, St. Peter, St. Therese, St. Thomas More and Visitation grade schools and Archbishop O’Hara and St. Pius X high schools.
This year, through $380,000 in grants, FIRE’s partner schools will be able to hire paraprofessionals and special education teachers, acquire essential learning technology including iPads and Chromebooks, and provide training for teachers and staff. And earlier this year FIRE made a special gift to the diocesan Bright Futures Fund to benefit Holy Cross and Our Lady of Hope Schools. The gift was doubled by Lamar Hunt, Jr’s Loretto Foundation, enabling the schools to hire a degreed special education teacher whom Holy Cross and Our Lady of Hope students will share during the 2016-17 academic year.
Kids at partner schools across the diocese are excited for school to begin. Jack Troester is a sixth grader at St. Elizabeth School. He was diagnosed with ADHD and Tourette Syndrome when he was much younger. In fact his mother, Nina Troester, told The Key his needs were identified when he was in first and second grade. FIRE was not a household word to them yet.
Tourette Syndrome is a neurological disorder that causes sudden movements called tics or sounds — rapid blinking, facial tics to name a few. It wasn’t easy for Jack’s classmates or their families to understand, so Jack added friendships to his other challenges at school.
Because of the Tourette’s and ADHD, Jack struggles with reading and Math. He learns more easily with headphones and audio books. The paraprofessionals at St. Elizabeth’s who work with him are a huge help, Nina said.
When his parents learned about FIRE, things began to change for Jack and his family. Connections were made with other families with children with special needs who were attending St. Elizabeth; teachers were alerted to the different manifestations of Tourette’s, and by the time Jack was in the fourth grade, the Troesters were ready to reach out and teach others about Tourette Syndrome.
They gave a presentation to the fourth grade class with a video titled, “I have Tourette’s but Tourette’s doesn’t have me!” and emailed the fourth grade parents explaining what they were doing and gave them a link to the same video. Nina recalled that Jack sat in front of his classmates and answered questions after the video. She said his classmates’ questions were insightful and thoughtful.
“Now his entire grade gets it,” Nina said. “They ignore the tics for the most part. Now we’re in a place where education includes those with special needs. Jack is a lot happier and I know we are!”
She thought a moment. “Where else will kids meet and get to know other kids with Tourette’s, or Asperger’s, Down Syndrome or Autism or any of the other disorders that have special needs, but at a school where kids with special needs are their classmates and friends? It gives humanity a heart and a face. The kids know about the struggles; they have empathy and compassion. It’s hands on, it’s right there for Jack and the other kids with special needs at St. Elizabeth’s.”
Luke Braun is a kindergartner at Our Lady of the Presentation School. He has three older siblings, also at Presentation.
Luke and his family are dealing with global developmental delays.
Luke’s mother, Sandy Braun, said they first heard about FIRE through their family physician, Carney Nulton, who was one of the six founding families of FIRE.
It’s exciting for Luke to know there are people at school (two full-time and two part-time paraprofessionals) who will work with him, Sandy said.
Luke is doing well, she said. “Every time I ask him who his best friend is, it’s someone different. He’s a great ambassador for FIRE.” Like all kids, Luke wants to be accepted and liked. “He doesn’t want to be different. FIRE makes that possible.”
Through fundraising and advocacy, FIRE opens doors for children with special needs to share in Catholic education’s opportunities. Without funding from FIRE, most students with significant special needs would be unable to attend their parish schools. All students attending a FIRE partner school benefit from inclusion; the fostering of a culture of acceptance and compassion draws them together as they grow in faith, learning and friendship.
“Inclusion is a way of life in all the schools of the Diocese,” said Patricia Burbach, Associate Superintendent of Schools. “We are very excited to note that Nicolette Gibson, our Inclusion Coordinator, will be working with both St Charles and St Patrick as they are able to welcome students with more significant needs this year. We are also very grateful to FIRE for their support of these new programs. As FIRE’s ability to support schools grows each year our schools benefit. The Foundation continues to be generous in its support of Catholic Education in the Diocese. They are wonderful partners in education!”
FIRE’s model of fundraising and advocacy has become a national model for inclusive Catholic education. FIRE is working to develop a consulting structure to share its model with other dioceses. In fact, FIRE is in the process of finalizing a licensing agreement for the first FIRE Foundation affiliate in another state. Details will be announced in early fall.
There are some events coming up. FIREBall, the annual gala fundraiser, will take place Nov. 5 at the Midland Theatre. For more information, visit www.firefoundation.org
December 2 will be a National Day of Prayer for Inclusion. “This is the start-up year,” FIRE Director Lynn Hire said. FIRE is joining with other groups from across the country who advocate for inclusive Catholic education to promote this National Day of Prayer for Inclusion. Inclusion advocacy organizations including FIRE Foundation (KC), National Catholic Board for Full Inclusion (CA), One Classroom (St. Louis), Catholic Coalition for Special Education (Washington DC), Loyola University (Chicago), National Catholic Partnership on Disability and several others will provide a toolkit for schools and parishes who wish to participate. A link with details and plans will be available on the firefoundation.org website in September.
FIRE is planning Inclusion in Catholic and Private Schools: Welcoming and Supporting Students with Special Needs. This is a conference for parents and educators scheduled for February 22 – 24, 2017. More information will be available in September.
To learn more about FIRE, visit www.firefoundation.org.