Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel
Zach Strole, a tutor at De La Salle North Catholic High School, helps a student in the Academic Resource Center.
Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel
Zach Strole, a tutor at De La Salle North Catholic High School, helps a student in the Academic Resource Center.

Second in a series
Part one: Catholic schools are accepting more students who need special learning support and many are preparing to welcome students with more serious disabilities. The Archdiocese of Portland has convened a task force to devise a plan.

 While many Catholic schools are not yet ready to provide learning support for students with serious needs or disabilities, others are well along the path and are serving as models.

• St. Agatha School in Southeast Portland established its Learning Support Center in 2005. The center at first focused on dyslexia but in 2010 expanded to serve a broader range.

St. Agatha families have their children diagnosed by private testers or at public schools. The files then come to the the center, where learning specialists meet with parents and teachers to develop a plan. About half of their school day, children are in the classroom, perhaps with a specialist, and the other half they are in small groups or in solo tutoring. A team of aides roams the school, helping wherever there is a need.

About 15 of the 228 students at St. Agatha have formal disability diagnoses, but dozens of others get help, too.  

“We are really adaptive,” says Chris Harris, principal of St. Agatha.

• La Salle Prep in Milwaukie was among the first Catholic high schools in the area to embrace learning support for students with disabilities. Instead of calling Signum Fidei (“Sign of Faith”) a “program,” staff at La Salle call it a “pathway,” indicating that every student takes a different path to a goal.

Signum Fidei, which provides support to 25 students this year, began when a Catholic grade school teacher wrote to local Catholic high schools to say her own child had been denied at all of them. She asked, “What’s the Catholic answer for my child?”

In five years of Signum Fidei, staff at La Salle have learned that the goal is to be nimble, adapting to the needs of each student.

Students with autism, for example, may have high intelligence, but lack social graces or organizing skills. Signum Fidei offers social support classes.

“We are not just offering academic support; we support the whole child,” says Brian Devine, who oversees learning support at La Salle Prep.

Renée Giesemann, a counselor at La Salle, makes sure Signum Fidei students have access to plenty of supportive adults. Giesemann and other staff help students deal with the anxiety of prom, sports, speeches, tests and other facets of high school life.  

Families in Signum Fidei students pay an extra fee. That helps pay for staff to keep classes small and maintain case managers who keep an eye on students’ progress. The fund may also go for special gear; for example, chairs that rock may be a benefit to some students.

Andrew Kuffner, the principal at La Salle, says Signum Fidei has worked to the point that students do not distinguish between those who are in or out, but just know that everyone is on a pathway.

• St. Pius X School, with an enrollment of 432, is getting a reputation. Parents from all over are sending their children with challenges there.  

Learning support specialists at places like St. Pius now visit students in classrooms at least as much as they remove students for one-on-one sessions, especially with older students. That reduces the possibility of stigma. Also, specialists work with teachers almost as much as students.

“Teachers come and ask, ‘What will work for this child?’” says Erika???? Irlbeck, the learning support chief. She and her staff assess children and guide teachers in the most effective way to teach the youngster. Perhaps this student needs test questions read to her, or maybe that student should have a ball to squeeze during math assignments.

This is the first year St. Pius X has hired a manager for learning support efforts, which include five other staff.  

• At St. Clare School, all students go through testing three times per year to check their progress. Those assessments also help teachers identify children who need more learning support.

“Early intervention is key,” says Carolyn Ullman, the learning specialist at St. Clare. Staff like her pay special attention in the early grades.

Of St. Clare’s 225 pupils, 30 have a diagnosed disability. About 20 more have regular contact with Ullman and the school’s other learning specialist. Ullman, also a counselor, helps almost every child at some point, a practice that curtails stigma for the children with disabilities.

Ullman has a master’s degree that qualifies her to carry out testing and assessments, a big advantage for a school that saves waiting and expense.

• At Central Catholic, all first-year students are tested to see what kind of support they require. Those who do need help are invited to summer school. Usually, about 30 attend.

Once the school year begins, students in need of extra aid spend most of their time with everyone else. But there are some math and English classes in which teachers employ whatever techniques work best for students, including audio books or oral instead of written tests. Depending on their need, students may enter small groups or see tutors one-on-one.

It’s all done in a low-key way to prevent students from feeling isolated.

“We really believe inclusion is the way to go,” says John Garrow, principal of Central Catholic.

Garrow, who attended Central Catholic as did his father, has personal reasons for being passionate. One of his daughters has an intellectual disability and was not able to attend Catholic high school. Earlier in his career, Garrow oversaw special education at Reynolds High School.

“I felt the Catholic schools did not realize what they could do,” he says.

Four Central Catholic staff members have special education certification. Since learning support began, the number of students who withdraw from the school each year for academic reasons has been halved.

• Holy Family School in Southeast Portland, with 238 students, made sure to have a staff member who has master’s degree in special education and whose full time job is learning support. Liz Richard can do assessments on site and can consult with parents. Holy Family has admitted students with learning disabilities and autism. The welcome began a decade ago, prompted by two families who had sons with intellectual disabilities. Now, both boys are grown and volunteer at the school.

Richard, a University of Portland graduate, assists 15 students with formal learning disabilities, but also dozens of others who are struggling. She was a sixth grade teacher who one day heard a sixth grader discussing his brother — a brother she had never heard of because he had a disability and could not attend Catholic grade school. She got her degree to help change what she saw as an injustice. That boy who was excluded from school is now her daughter’s godfather.

“This is not just a job for me,” Richard says. “This is a very strong calling.”

Richard takes small groups of children to tutor. Most of the time, students who need support are with all their classmates, sometimes with Richard in the room. Only 30 minutes to an hour per day is spent outside class.

Each classroom at Holy Family has a corner with putty, coloring books and other gear that appeals to the senses. When children with disabilities begin to feel anxious or antsy, they can take themselves to the corner to get reorganized via creativity.

• At De La Salle North Catholic High School in North Portland, helping students adapt and catch up is the name of the game. The school of 310 students offers low tuition and generous financial aid to provide a Catholic education to inner city students who otherwise could not afford it. Because of their poverty, most freshmen enter a year or two behind grade level.

This fall, De La Salle opened what it calls the Academic Resource Center. It provides help to the 20 or so students with documented learning disabilities, but also helps anyone who needs to get caught up or prepare for an exam. About 1 in 5 De La Salle students could use additional help and professional tutors and volunteers, including retired teachers, stand ready.   

Andy Poundstone, coordinator of the center, observes students, gauging what they need. He then pairs them with a tutor who has expertise in the field.

Some students have the ability, but not the will. For them, De La Salle provides mentors.

“ARC lets kids feel they are important,” says Tim Joy, principal of De La Salle North.

“We try to address the whole person, meet them where they are at,” Poundstone says. “For a lot of kids it is figuring out how they best process information. The other part of it is building habits — doing the work, showing up on time, having what you need.”

Not all Catholic schools are ready for students with diverse learning needs, says Dorothy Coughlin, former director of the Archdiocese of Portland Office for People with Disabilities and a member of the archdiocese’s task force on including more kinds of students in Catholic education. “Principals want to get there, but have not developed capacity yet,” she explains. “That will be a beautiful future.”

Next time: Training teachers, the Catholic advantage and hope for parents