FIRE conference spreads the word about Inclusion in Catholic education

Over 150 people from 20 states attended FIRE’s conference, pictured here attending a keynote talk. (photos courtesy of FIRE)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor

KANSAS CITY — The FIRE Foundation hosted their second biennial conference on inclusive education, ‘Inclusion in Action’, at the Marriot Courtyard Hotel in North Kansas City Feb. 18 – 20, attracting over 150 people from across the country. It was three days packed with information, including keynote presentations by experts, advocates and parents, breakout sessions on numerous related topics and tours of several local Inclusive schools, as well as networking opportunities and a marketplace.

Two of the six keynote presentations were given by Michael Boyle, Ph.D. and Beth Foraker.

Dr. Boyle—director of the Andrew M. Greeley Center for Catholic Education at Loyola University Chicago, author, administrator and psychologist—has worked in education in a variety of settings and roles, including promoting the idea of integrating students with special needs within the Catholic school system. He is also a member of the governing boards of the Journal of Catholic Education, the National Catholic Partnership on Disability, and the Loyola Press. Within the School of Education, Dr. Boyle teaches courses in multi-tiered systems of support, mission-driven leadership and ethics.

Beth Foraker is the mother of four: Jack, 26, Mary Kate, 23, Patrick, 19 and Caroline, 12. Her third child, Patrick, has Down Syndrome. She is a former classroom teacher who currently works for University of California-Davis in the School of Education with beginning teachers in their Multiple Subject Credential/Masters Program. She is the Founder and Director of The National Catholic Board on Full Inclusion—a non-profit that works with families and schools to fully include students with intellectual disabilities in Catholic schools.

Dr, Boyle’s address, “Moving from Welcoming to Belonging: Inclusionary Approaches in Catholic Schools,” covered Inclusion’s connections with scripture, Catholic identity, and being pro-life.

“Recently,” he began, “a colleague at the Greeley Center, Doreen Engel, reminded me of the definition of Catholic.  She referenced the definition that James Joyce uses in Finnegan’s Wake. ‘Catholic means Here comes everybody.’ … Contained in this very simple definition is the idea that ‘All are Welcome’. No excuses why some are welcome and others are not. No discussion of budgetary constraints or perception of stakeholders. Simply, ‘Here comes everybody.’”

He reminded the audience that the greatest commandment is: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind. The second greatest commandment is Thou shalt love your neighbor as yourself.

“To truly love your neighbor is to serve them,” he said, “and to serve our neighbors suggests being on an equal plane, no one is greater than the next.” 

Dr. Boyle quoted Katie Mulembe of the Catholic Volunteer Network, in a challenge to consider the nature of being neighbor: ‘We are called to be people who see those who are suffering as their neighbors and have the courage to cross the street to help them. If I seek to serve my neighbors, I first need to learn to see them.’

He asked rhetorically, “How can we learn to see people with disabilities if they are not part of our communities, hidden away from our view?” He said that by excluding certain groups of people from Catholic schools and parishes, the message is that these people don’t exist or are not valued. Or, if there are students with disabilities in the schools, are they visible and viable members of the communities? 

“As Catholic educators, what kind of values are we advancing? Values are not just those simple statements that we espouse in our marketing materials but how we choose to live out our Faith in all aspects of our life.”

He recalled that when he was principal of a Catholic school he was asked if a student with special needs could attend that school. He said, ‘Sure, why not?’

Conference attendees toured several inclusion programs in local schools. Above, Jen Moreland, inclusion coordinator at St. Elizabeth school in Kansas City, speaks to a group touring the school.

He continued, “One of the most powerful elements of our Catholic schools is the community. Our school communities are strongest when we have a number of voices present.”

More Catholic schools are accepting the challenge to welcome students with disabilities. “However, it can no longer be about just inviting those with disabilities to our schools. The greater challenge is how do we build cultures where all truly belong.” 

Dr. Boyle said that often, welcoming and belonging are perceived as synonymous terms. However, there are subtle differences. Welcome implies that we are inviting you into an already established community, that we are allowing you to be one of us.  It can suggest that you weren’t part of the community but now you are. The feeling of belongingness is the quality of being an essential or important part of something. … Those that are welcoming have the power to invite you in, or not. However, if we truly belong, we are an essential component of the community, we aren’t just an “add on.” 

One of his main points was that Inclusion is multi-faceted—faith and justice: everyone is loved, wanted and necessary; and pro-life, one of the biggest pro-life issues. “We fight for life for all, and for access to faith communities.”

He reminded his audience that “everybody will encounter disability at some point in their lives. And if we are truly one body, one spirit in Christ, it is hypocritical to say people with disabilities can’t be in the same churches, schools and groups.”

Pat Kollasch, principal of St. Elizabeth’s School, a FIRE partner school for 20 years, said, “The life lessons our students experience through playing, working, and learning alongside our exceptional students is boundless … Additionally, working with our varied learners, teachers gain skills and instructional techniques that enhance their overall repertoire of teaching strategies. We recognize the value of welcoming all learners into our school community.”

Beth Foraker strives to advance ‘Continuums of Inclusion’: communities offering preschool through college inclusion so that full, independent adulthood is possible beginning with every Catholic elementary school, every Catholic high school and every Catholic college and university offering an inclusive program for these students. And she is working to make that dream come true.

She told her audience in ‘Little Bits of Grace: Finding a Path to an Inclusive Life’, that “inclusion in Catholic schools matters because it is a form of freedom. If we don’t allow kids with certain needs into our schools, we are failing to teach them faith!”

Father Randolph Sly, president of St. Michael the Archangel High School, said of inclusive education, “We are able to see each other as persons who bring value to our school community and contribute to the common good. This is a real-world experience that will help our young men and women maintain an awareness of the needs and qualities of others in their faith journey.”

Foraker continued, “And we are cheating the typical kids of knowing the grace, the value of every person. By providing support, access, and opportunity, we are working for social justice. We need to have people understand the loss of the typical students — social and emotional sense and faith growth.”

Foraker hopes more cities will create a continuum of inclusion from pre-school through college. Currently only three cities in three states have that continuum — Nashville, Charleston and Fairfax, Va. Kansas City has inclusion in Catholic schools from preschool through high school.

Like Dr. Boyle, Foraker described Inclusion as pro-life.

“Inclusion is more prolife than standing in front of an abortion clinic,” she said. “Inclusion is an opportunity for redemption and to truly live our Catholic faith. It is an incredible opportunity!”

Breakout session topics included: Roadmap to Including Children of All Abilities; Fostering Language, Social Skills, and Peer Relationships in Schools; Motivating & Engaging Learners with Disabilities; Characteristics of an Inclusive Classroom; Dollars and Sense of Inclusion; and sessions about peer mentoring, co-teaching with para-educators, leveraging effective practices for all learners and several other concepts.

Jodi Briggs, principal of Our Lady of the Presentation School, a FIRE partner school since 2012: “Students in the classrooms benefit from the additional para support, not just … students with special learning needs. The paras assist everyone in the classroom. “

There were also tours of several Inclusive Catholic schools, including St. Michael the Archangel High School, St. Elizabeth, Visitation, Nativity of Mary and Our Lady of the Presentation grade schools.

Jodie Maddox, St. Michael the Archangel principal, said, “The students and faculty of SMA are passionate about passing on our faith, and living out the mission of Holy Mother Church. We believe inclusive education invites all abilities to work side by side … to grow, learn, and serve. Our SMILE Zone (St. Michael Inclusive Learning Enhancement Zone) is a true snapshot of God’s Kingdom. At SMA, we … grow in virtue because of the many different joyful gifts brought to our community.”

Joe Monachino, principal of St. Pius X High School, a FIRE partner school since 2014, said, “We see the benefit … from the eyes of the student with special needs and their ability to stay in a Catholic high school. Allowing families to stay together in school is a good thing for both our community and their families.”

And that says it all.


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October 31, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph