Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel
Liz Richard, learning specialist at Holy Family School in Southeast Portland, helps children with penmanship. A task force is studying ways for Oregon Catholic schools to accept more students with special needs.
Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel
Liz Richard, learning specialist at Holy Family School in Southeast Portland, helps children with penmanship. A task force is studying ways for Oregon Catholic schools to accept more students with special needs.
First in a series

Imagine a second grade class at a Catholic school. With a crucifix on the wall behind her, the teacher gives a lesson on subtraction. Suddenly, the janitor walks past the door, his keys jangling. A half dozen students notice him briefly, then five quickly resume listening to the teacher.

One boy’s brain works differently. He can’t help but continue thinking about the custodian. Where is he headed? What will he clean next? What kind of shoes sound like that? In just a few minutes, the youngster has missed some important arithmetic. If this kind of thing happens enough, his grades slip for years to come.

Catholic schools are enrolling more students like that boy, children whose brains for now aren’t wired to focus or follow along — skills baked in to our education system.

Catholic schools in western Oregon have more than 15,000 students. The schools already serve children who need academic accomodations at an increasing rate. In 2010, 791 students in the system had a formally diagnosed learning disability. By 2015, the number had more than doubled to 1,604. In addition, Catholic grade schools and high schools last year identified 1,147 other students who had not been diagnosed, but who need additional help.

The increase is probably a blend of more students with need plus more attentive diagnoses. The result is this: one in six Catholic school students in the Archdiocese of Portland requires additional support.

“It used to be, ‘We can’t serve that child.’ Now we are finding ways to do it,” says Debbi Monahan, principal of St. Clare School in Southwest Portland.

Advocates of learning support look back in history to plead the wisdom of their cause. In the early 19th century, St. John Vianney flunked out of seminary because he couldn’t learn Latin. The patron saint of parish priests, a man who may have been the best pastor ever, was a kid with learning disabilities.  

‘We all learn differently’

The term “learning disabilties” is still used, but doesn’t tell the whole story. Instead, experts say, every child learns in different ways and at different rates; educators just need to discover what works best and cater to it.

“We all learn differently,” says Mary Thompson, principal at St. Pius X School in Northwest Portland. “And we all have a tool belt. We need to teach each kid what tool to use.”

In what amounts to a sea change, many Catholic schools in western Oregon have embraced the new thinking and are preparing to welcome students who need even more help and more time to learn.    

Some schools have hired specialists, wanting to serve as many families as possible who want Catholic education.

“The kids I work with are really bright; they just need information presented differently,” says Erika Irlbeck, learning support director at St. Pius X School in Northwest Portland.

Alanna O’Brien, a vice principal at La Salle Prep, says one can’t talk about a spectrum of “smart” to “not smart.” It’s more complicated than that. Students who take advanced placement classes may need learning accomodations in some subjects; some students with learning disabilites may be high-achieving in certain areas.   

“There has been a big shift in acceptance in the past five years,” says Carolyn Ullman, a veteran teacher who now is learning specialist at St. Clare School in Southwest Portland. A junior high teacher for decades, she saw a need for better support.  

“We are doing what I think Catholic schools should do — address the needs of all children of families who want a Catholic education,” says Loretta Wiltgen, principal of Holy Family School, which has a full time learning support teacher.

Plan taking shape

An Archdiocese of Portland task force, made up of educators and officials, is considering ways to welcome more students at the schools.

“Something in the archdiocese is on fire,” says Dorothy Coughlin, retired director of the archdiocese’s Office for People with Disabilities and a member of the task force, which is called Partners for Exceptional Learners. “The fact is, we are serving these children now and could have the ability to serve more.”

This fall, Central Catholic High School hosted a meeting of 74 parents, teachers and administrators from Catholic schools. They formed focus groups to give a sense of needs when it comes to learning differences.  

Holy Cross Brother William Dygert, new superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Portland, asked for the data to help form a plan.  

Brother William says new discoveries about the brain have made it possible for Catholic schools to accept more kinds of students. The schools in recent years have been accepting students with learning difficulties because there is more know-how when it comes to catering to different learning styles. Now, the task force wants to open the doors to some children who have clinically diagnosed intellectual disabilities like Asperger’s and Down syndrome.  

Brother William wants to see this happen, but wants expectations to be realistic. “We will never be able to have money to serve every child in every school in every aspect,” he says. “But we are trying to expand.”

He envisions having one school in each area that can offer qualified personnel and accept more students with diagnoses. And though the cost would be high, he hopes some day for a special needs school connected to a current school, with students crossing back and forth. He saw that succeed in Florida, where he served previously.

“They have the best of both worlds,” he says.

Brother William realizes that rural Catholic schools may not be able to take part, because of distances and tight budgets. And he knows some principals, rural or urban, must weigh the good of a single student against the welfare of the general population.  

“I think in an ideal world you could do it all,” he says. “But we don’t live in an ideal world and we don’t have financial resources to do it all. But we always have to try to do better.”

Brother William rejects half measures and works to keep the process moving at a good pace so action comes before too long.

“We don’t want to talk it to death,” he says. “And we want to do what we are doing with integrity.”

For expanded learning support to succeed, schools and low-income families will need financial help.

“The social justice teachings of the Church tell us you are judged by how you treat the most vulberable,” he says.  

As early as 1978, the U.S. Catholic bishops asked for parishes and schools to include children with disabilities and not separate them.

Brother William tells the story of St. André Bessette, a Holy Cross Brother who died in 1931 after healing thousands of people in Canada and the U.S. St. André, the only saint in a religious congregation known for education, was almost rejected from religious life because he had difficulty in school.  

“Don’t count anybody out,” Brother William says.

New approach helps everyone

For many schools, it’s not just a matter of serving someone in need, but of improving the culture and environment of the whole institution.

“I can’t imagine not having these kids in our school,” says Dean Heuberger, who has directed learning support at Central Catholic since 2010.  

“When you work in an integrated classroom, those kids bring something special to the table,” says Wiltgen of Holy Family. “The other kids become more understanding, more accepting.”

Andrew Kuffner, principal of La Salle Prep in Milwaukie, is in awe of the benefits of welcoming students with learning needs. The more kinds of students La Salle admits, he says, the better the school gets.

“In God’s wisdom, the bigger the tent you allow, the stronger and more vibrant and more real the community is,” he explains.

At La Salle, there are a few classes that are just for students who need more help, but a most are for anyone.

Renée Giesemann of La Salle Prep sees students with special needs influencing other students for the good. In particular, other La Salle Prep students can apply to tutor and mentor peers.

“We don’t give answers, we help them work it out,” says Alex Tokonitz, a senior education assistant who specializes in math and science. “We treat them with kindness and respect.”

It hit Kuffner one day in the La Salle cafeteria. One smaller student with special needs was sitting at a table packed with lanky basketball players. Kuffner told the athletes how inspiring it was that they welcomed the smaller boy into their group. The hoopsters were puzzled, the distinction lost on them. “He’s my friend,” one simply said.  

Principals and learning specialists at many schools reiterate: When teachers learn better techniques for learning support, everyone learns better, not just the kids who need more help.

“Training for teachers to help kids who have different learning needs, those strategies are universal,” says Rick Schindler, principal of St. Mary School in Stayton.  

“The strategies have helped all of our students,” says Brian Devine of La Salle Prep. For example, La Salle teachers attended a workshop on helping students manage time, stay organized and keep an eye on the big picture. Every student at La Salle needs help with that, though some need more.

Instead of assisting only students who need to slow down, schools like St. Pius X also dedicate their learing support staff to helping every student learn in the way best for him or her.

“The goal is to support students who are struggling, but also to work with students who need a more accelerated pace,” says Irlbeck.

At all the schools, learning support specialists see children who have official diagnoses, but in general see twice as many others who are close to diagnoses. The specialists also often enter classrooms and help anyone who needs it.

Statistics tell the story. At Central Catholic, college entrance rates have not changed since the learning support push began.

O’Brien of La Salle  sums it up: “Learning differences and excellence can coexist.”
Next issue: What schools are doing now, and the advantage of a faith foundation.