At St. Agatha School, portraits of Pope Benedict and Archbishop John Vlazny hang on the wall. Both are smiling. And chances are, the men themselves would like much of what's going on in the Southeast Portland building, especially in a corner room called the Learning Support Center.
There, students who understand things differently than standard get a chance to show their stuff. In years past, such students would have been categorized as slow. No more. Learning differences are just that, says Andy Metzler, the center's teacher. They're not all bad and in fact may come in handy. Great minds like Albert Einstein's and Thomas Edison's didn't fit the mold and allowed great innovation. The trick is finding what strategy works.
St. Agatha is unique among Oregon's Catholic grade schools for having a staffer devoted full-time to students with learning differences. The Learning Support Center gives lessons on study habits and skills to all of St. Agatha's 192 students, but works closely with about 40 youngsters. That latter number has doubled in the past year as parents of students with learning differences have discovered the program.
"Many people are excited that there is a Catholic school that has this as part of it," says Jeff Delegato, principal of St. Agatha.
New students have transferred from both public schools and other Catholic schools. Teachers can refer any student who needs special help on any subject. The center has drop-in hours when students can come in for aid of their own accord. After classes on some days, the center stays open late so honors students can tutor schoolmates.
Here's an example of the center's work: Children who learn by pictures more than words are instructed to sketch what they are hearing the teacher say. For a lesson on planets, the student would draw a solar system. The teacher can watch and correct misunderstandings, say, replacing a circular orbit with an elliptical one.
"We all get to answers in different ways," Metzler says.
Delegato and Metzler have continued to fine-tune the center's work since it began in 2010. For now, the focus is academics and learning styles, not emotional or psychological aid.
Sometimes, students enrolled in the center grow in independence and move out. That's a sweet moment, Delegato says.
Of course, St. Agatha is more than the Learning Support Center. The school has relatively new science and computer labs and standard learners who achieve high marks. Parents who send their children to the school often cite science and math programs as the reason. All classrooms now have interactive projectors. That can accommodate students who learn best by seeing instead of hearing, but even for those who learn by ear, the projector adds reinforcement.
Regular Catholic school activities have not slowed, as evidenced by large piles of macaroni and cheese and peanut better at various points, collected to be given to needy neighbors. There is a weekly Mass.
Helping non-standard learners figure out their own methods tends to speed up learning for the entire class. Meanwhile, the center gives advanced students a chance to become mentors to classmates. Everyone gains from that, Delegato says.
"We keep adding strategies," says Metzler. "I hope every student walks out of here thinking, 'I am smart enough to take on this problem.'"
With it's extra offerings, the school's budget balances, but it's tight, Delegato admits. "If we stay true to our mission, we'll make it work," he says. "All kids need to be taught." La Salle Prep in Milwaukie last year launched Signum Fidei, a high school program for students with learning differences. The Jesuit High campus has long hosted a private high school serving the population named after Thomas Edison.
Central Catholic High is in its second year of providing additional support to students who learn differently. A Student Support Services Coordinator manages plans, which include summer classes, tutoring, an after school session and individual learning plans. More classes are in the works that will accommodate students.