A program found in all four high schools in the Diocese of Arlington is making an impact on students with disabilities.
The Options Program is a special education program for students diagnosed with intellectual or developmental disabilities. Its goal is to provide an individualized and inclusive, student-centered Catholic education in small classes to help students work on goals and develop skills needed to transition into adulthood and the workplace.
Kathleen McNutt, head of school at Bishop Ireton (BI) High School in Alexandria, Virginia, has been working at BI since 2019 but has been an educator within the Diocese of Arlington since 2009. She explained that in 2019, the school began to hire staff who specialize in special education.
“Bishop Ireton staff saw and understood the importance of providing special education support and accommodations for qualifying students who wanted a Catholic college preparatory education,” she told CNA in an interview. “While that meant additional budgetary increases, we recognized the need and began the process of change.”
She added that the change was also made partially due to families and community members searching for these services and that “made the difference in Bishop Ireton’s ‘yes’ to serving students’ special needs.”
BI offers three different programs for children with special needs including the Academic Support Program, which is open to students with and without disabilities; the DeSales Program for students with a diagnosed mild to moderate learning disability; and the Options Program.
McNutt explained that their students often come from families with more than one child “and those families want a school community that serves all of their children.”
“That common experience increases the family bond, helps to support the faith life of all family members, and certainly supports the home life and family schedule,” she shared.
“Every academic year, parents share their gratitude for the opportunity to have their children at Bishop Ireton, and particularly for the outstanding educators who work to support their children day in and day out.”
Not only are the teachers essential for the success of the Options Program, but McNutt emphasized that it “couldn’t function without the robust peer mentor program that brings over 100 neurotypical peers together with students who need their support in the classroom.”
Students who sign up to be “peer mentors” help students in the Options Program with their coursework, attend general education classes, serve as advocates, and facilitate inclusion in academic and non-academic settings. In many cases, they build genuine friendships.
“Parents are so grateful for those peer mentors, who share that while they are helping their classmates, they are also receiving the gift of friendship and a deeper appreciation and respect for life,” she added.
Erin Thielman, a science teacher at BI and a mother of three, one of whom has Down syndrome, sees the beauty of these friendships play out every day in her classroom.
“As a mother to a special-needs child and a teacher to special-needs students, nothing makes my heart soar more than seeing traditional students engaging with their special-needs peers,” she said. “God’s hand is at work when 14- to 18-year-olds are helping their peers, joking with them, and engaging with them in all forms. When the traditional students are buddying up with the special-needs students, they are imitating Christ in their service to others.”
Adam Bigbee, dean of exceptional learning at St. Paul VI Catholic High School in Chantilly, Virginia, shared a similar sentiment about the friendships formed through the use of peer mentors.
“I’ve seen some of the most beautiful friendships develop from this,” he said.
“It’s funny because a lot of times students when they want to be a peer mentor they’re looking at it — and it’s not wrong — but they’re looking at it more as what they can do for the Options student, but it always, not always but most of the time, ends up the other way around, and it’s such a beautiful thing to see.”
St. Paul VI Catholic High School is about to celebrate its 25th anniversary of having the Options Program at the school and currently has 16 students in the program.
Bigbee emphasized the immense level of “acceptance” seen among the students. He shared the story of a transfer student to the Options Program who within the first two weeks of classes was having his name chanted down the hallway by a group of football players.
“It’s not lifting up an Options student just because they’re different — and we’ve come a long way with how we treat and view people with intellectual disabilities — but there’s just an acceptance and very real relationships that develop,” he shared.
Not only do Options students participate in the classroom with their peers, but they are also a part of other extracurricular activities such as the pep band and theater, and they attend football games and take part in the Special Olympics, where they are cheered on by their classmates.
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Bigbee pointed out that while each day isn’t perfect, and there are several challenges faced, “the celebratory moments far outweigh” the tough times.
When asked why Catholics should be leading the way in creating programs such as this one, Bigbee responded: “I think that if we are all truly created in the image and likeness of God, and we’re all beautiful in his eyes, who else should lead the way than people of faith?”
He added: “As people of faith who say we love Jesus and we all have value and dignity as children of God, well, obviously everybody should be doing it, but who else but people of faith, like us, who try to live the Gospel message?”
Catholics with special needs are a central part of “who we are and what we do” as a community, Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington told attendees of the diocesean Mass for Persons with Disabilities on Sunday, Sept. 29.
In Michigan a new kind of specialized education is being crafted from the backbone of Jesuit formation, which will cater to students who learn differently than those in a traditional setting by focusing on special needs education.