River Sampson, a junior at Central Catholic High School in Southeast Portland and part of the Ram’s Program, speaks during the fourth annual inclusion conference last month. “Inclusion to me means everything,” Sampson told attendees at the daylong gathering. (Courtesy Inclusive Catholic Education of Oregon)
River Sampson, a junior at Central Catholic High School in Southeast Portland and part of the Ram’s Program, speaks during the fourth annual inclusion conference last month. “Inclusion to me means everything,” Sampson told attendees at the daylong gathering. (Courtesy Inclusive Catholic Education of Oregon)
There were nationally known speakers at a conference last month on inclusive Catholic education. But Central Catholic junior River Sampson got to the heart of the gathering when he stepped up to the mic.

Sampson is part of his school’s Rams Program, which enables students with intellectual and developmental disabilities to be fully included within the Central Catholic community. During his reflection, he shared how at his former, public high school, students with disabilities were isolated in two rooms in the basement. He felt “unwanted and rejected.”

When Sampson arrived at Central Catholic last fall, he thought it might be the same.

“I was wrong,” he said. He’s made friends, been challenged academically and felt “seen as an individual.”

“Inclusion to me means everything,” said Sampson.

The impact of inclusion and the tools to make it successful were the focus points of the fourth annual inclusion conference, sponsored by Inclusive Catholic Education of Oregon, a parent-run support and advocacy nonprofit that provides resources and workshops.

Nearly 60 Catholic school educators and administrators from Idaho, California and Washington joined representatives from the Archdiocese of Portland for the May 21 event.

Catholic schools “want to be inclusive and are working to look at how they can do that,” said Jeanne Loftis, executive director of the inclusion nonprofit.

The morning session, held at Holy Family School in Southeast Portland, focused on parish schools. The afternoon portion highlighted inclusive education at the high school level and was at Central Catholic. 

Doreen Engel, an adjunct faculty member at Loyola University in Chicago, offered an introduction to behavioral analysis, provided suggestions for how to work with and support families, and reviewed ways to address behavior issues effectively in the classroom.

Engel, whose insights applied to all types of learners, spoke about the need to withhold judgment when confronted with difficult behaviors.

“Some of our students are ill, some have difficult circumstances,” she said. “The internal thoughts and feelings we have inform our behavior, but we have to be careful with judging other people’s internal thoughts and feelings.”

She underscored the role of parents and reminded conferencegoers that humor sometimes can effectively defuse behavioral hurdles.

Focusing her lecture primarily on students with Down syndrome, Dr. Erica Peirson discussed physical and psychological reasons for different behavioral issues. Peirson said that in most children with Down syndrome, social withdrawal “is a big clue that something is off.”

“They may be isolating because they can’t hear or because there are stressors at home.”

Peirson said educators should be aware that the percentage of children with Down syndrome who have autism is higher than in the general population: 5-7% versus less than 1%.

Prior to the conference’s luncheon talk by Barbara Gaffney, a longtime advocate for those with disabilities, Holy Family students guided attendees to classrooms where they observed inclusive education in action. Holy Family is one of about five parish schools in the Portland area to offer a comprehensive inclusion program, according to Peter Corrado, director of the Catholic Schools Endowment Foundation of Oregon. He has a nephew with Down syndrome who attended The Madeleine School in Northeast Portland and Central Catholic.

After lunch educators headed to the high school, where Rams Program coordinators Mary Wilson and Jon Jedrykowski gave an overview of the endeavor.

Wilson said its success is grounded in the peer mentors, who accompany participants to classes.

“It’s been amazing and powerful to watch students supporting students not only academically but socially as well,” said Wilson after the conference.

The afternoon included a second talk by Engel, who discussed ways to establish student support teams. Sampson spoke and Central Catholic peer mentors participated in a question-and-answer session.

The Portland Archdiocese’s strategic plan for Catholic schools includes a commitment to serve more diverse learners like Sampson. Currently about 11% of students attending Catholic schools nationwide have learning differences, according to a study by the Program for Inclusive Education, based at the University of Notre Dame. And in the Portland Archdiocese, the number of students with special needs is growing.

But several western Oregon administrators at the conference explained that schools’ financial and enrollment pressures and training limitations can make full inclusion a challenge.

Kelli Clark, principal of St. Ignatius School in Southeast Portland, was present at the morning portion. She said that as schools across the Portland Archdiocese strive for greater inclusivity, she’d like to see creative collaboration at the diocesan level.

For example, the Catholic Schools Department could have a psychologist whom all schools use to help with testing and to identify how best to serve students. “That could really help move the dial,” said Clark.

Her takeaway from the gathering, however, was that “there is a tremendous heart and a tremendous will in the Catholic community for inclusive education.”

Julie Johnson, principal of Holy Cross School in North Portland, said her staff who attended the conference “found the day incredibly helpful and inspirational.”

Inclusive Catholic Education of Oregon “always provides a lot of great information” at its events, added Corrado. He hopes in the future more educators attend.

The annual conference and momentum in the archdiocese are part of increased efforts nationwide to make Catholic schools more inclusive. The National Catholic Educational Association conference this spring featured more than 25 talks addressing students with special needs. Next year, the NCEA will set aside two days of such programming.

Inclusion, said Loftis, “is central to Catholic social teaching, which forms the cornerstone of a Catholic education.”