Catholic school program in Pittsburgh a model for special education nationwide

.- A nationally recognized school program, hailed as a model for inclusive, “Christ-centered” Catholic education, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

The St. Anthony School Program operates 11 schools around Pittsburgh – seven elementary, three secondary and Duquesne University, where students receive vocational training, reported the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

However, the Word of God program – an outgrowth of the St. Anthony School Program – has received particular attention because of its success with children who have autism and Down syndrome.

About 50 percent of students in the St. Anthony School Programs have learning disabilities or low IQs, 30 per cent have autism and 20 per cent have Down syndrome, reported the daily.

The Word of God program, which runs within regular schools, promotes independence and encourages academic excellence through homework and class participation and focuses on vocational skills such as day-care assistance, mailroom training and other support functions, said the newspaper.

The student-to-staff ratio is 3-to-1 with a maximum of 13 children at each site. These students have individualized education programs in reading and language arts, math, handwriting, computer and social skills and are integrated into regular classrooms for the arts, physical education and other social studies. The individualized programs ensure that each child continues to learn at a pace that fits the student's abilities.

Students are also taught class skills, such as raising their hand, being prepared for class, doing homework, and following rules, so children will be able to interact appropriately when they are integrated into the regular classes.

Director of education for St. Anthony Lisa George said expectations for students are high. "We demand a lot, not only for academics but also for social skills and behavior, because that's what will carry on in life," she told the newspaper.

The program also teaches functional skills like counting money, shopping and telling time. “The goal is for them to be productive citizens of the community," said George.

However, what sets the program apart from other inclusive-education programs is that “everything comes from the religious standpoint that everyone is equal in God's eyes," George told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "It's a loving, caring environment because it's Christ-centered."

That’s one reason Lisa and Joe Rajakovich enrolled their four children at the school. The couple had grown up studying in there. They loved it and decided to raise their children in the same neighborhood so they could benefit from the inclusive model of education as well.

But the Rakoviches have another reason to send their nine-year-old daughter daughter Maria to Word of God. Maria has Down syndrome.

"We wanted Maria to have the religious aspect, and it's nice to continue the family tradition," Lisa told the newspaper. She stressed how Maria is flourishing there. “She's reading and spelling and writing," she said.

"We're so fortunate that our diocese offers a wonderful program like this because a lot of other dioceses don't," she was quoted as saying in the Post-Gazette.

Nicole Hardiman is flourishing there as well. After being told by public school teachers that Nicole would never learn to read, her mother, Mary Ann, enrolled her daughter in the Word of God program. Nicole was in the second grade, reported the paper.

Now, at 19, Nicole is enrolled in the program's site at Duquesne, where typical college students act as job coaches for her vocational training as a teacher's aide, reported the newspaper.

Nicole is one of many St. Anthony success stories. Over the past 50 years, 789 students have been served and more than 95 percent of post-secondary graduates have been placed in the work force.

St. Anthony School Programs held its annual Opportunity Award Dinner Nov. 14 to begin its 50th anniversary celebration. The event is a major fund-raiser for the program, which relies on the support of donors.

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