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Tom TracyJanuary 18, 2024
Special needs student Peter Marvin, a freshman, completes an assignment with the assistance of Landon Lewis, a senior and one of his peer mentors, at DeSmet Jesuit High School in St. Louis on Sept. 6, 2023 Special needs student Peter Marvin, a freshman, completes an assignment with the assistance of Landon Lewis, a senior and one of his peer mentors, at DeSmet Jesuit High School in St. Louis on Sept. 6, 2023 (OSV News photo/Tom Tracy).

This fall, De Smet Jesuit High School in St. Louis, Mo., admitted two students with intellectual disabilities. Their parents wanted a Catholic high school education for their children.

Jack McDonald volunteered to be a student mentor. “What interested me was how kids with a disability learn—and to look at things and high school through their eyes,” Mr. McDonald told OSV News.

Mr. McDonald, a junior, has been paired with Peter Marvin, a freshman, in a new program that will be closely watched for its overall impact on the student body and studied by the School of Education at nearby St. Louis University.

At De Smet, students with disabilities attend four classes with their peers, including physical education/health, theology, art and music. 

While students with disabilities take classes with the general student population, there is also one-on-one learning with the school’s faculty and staff. Students with disabilities pursue a modified diploma with their own graduation path, which may require an additional year of high school.

Mr. McDonald said he has already observed his mentee evolve from a shy student, hesitant to raise his hand and offer an answer in class, to a more outgoing student, giving presentations and fist-bumping with the other kids in the lunchroom.

“We take things at a different pace—an adjustment pace to high school,” Mr. McDonald said of his mentoring experience. “They want help in class and to get those answers. From eighth [grade] to high school is a jump.”

The trend in education of students with disabilities has dramatically changed over the last several decades from a separate educational platform to an integrated approach that places students in mainstream educational settings as much as possible.

While a number of St. Louis area parochial grade schools have been admitting students with disabilities, there was a void at the high school level in a city with no small number of Catholic schools, according to Sarah Patton, De Smet’s director of inclusive education, who works closely with the two pilot program students there.

The whole point is to have a community at De Smet “that does a better job of showing us what the church looks like.”

“In the past 20 years, there has been a coming around to having teaching staff and learning consultants for special needs children and providing a pull-out method, where they come out of the [general] classroom and receive instruction in a study situation,” Ms. Patton told OSV News.

At De Smet, students with disabilities attend four classes with their peers, including physical education/health, theology, art and music, while they work privately with Ms. Patton on English, science and mathematics-related courses.

“They do also have a study hall with me, and that is where I work with them on executive functioning skills, on homework, and when they get older there might be more job skills-related training,” she said.

“We are hoping to start a community-based vocational instruction for skills program for being prepared to go to work, whereby in the afternoon they would go out in the community as volunteers and work at different sites, including grocery stores,” said Ms. Patton, whose background includes special education teaching for children in extended hospital stays.

De Smet is hoping to grow the program slowly, adding a few students each year and capping at around a 12-student population, with the addition of a few inclusive-education faculty members to help support those students.

The thrust is in keeping with the Jesuits’ newest universal apostolic preferences, which call for walking with the marginalized and youth, according to Ronald O’Dwyer, S.J., who was installed last year as president of De Smet. The Synod on Synodality’s recent session in Rome also demonstrated the inclusion of persons with disabilities as equal participants in the church’s life, from planning to executing the global gathering. The synod’s synthesis report called upon the church to recognize the “apostolic capacities of persons with disabilities.”

In addition to Peter Marvin, another freshman with disabilities, Aiden Hadican, is enrolled at De Smet. Both students have Down syndrome, but this program is for all students with intellectual disabilities who desire a Catholic education and an independent life after high school. The impact of the program will be assessed by St. Louis University and the locally based One Classroom foundation, dedicated to creating inclusive Catholic educational opportunities.

“We hope to grow this by one to two students a year and be a more active partner with families in the parish grade schools if they desire a faith-based education and need options,” Father O’Dwyer said. “I would love to see one of our local girls’ schools have an option for those students coming out of grade school.”

Another interesting part of the project is the pool of 16 upperclassmen De Smet vetted to serve as peer mentors: Each passed a disciplinary and academic review and underwent a personal interview process to make sure they understood what they were signing up for and that they had the proper motivation and heart for being a mentor to youth with disabilities.

“For some it was very personal; some have family members or relatives with disabilities and some others were wanting to challenge themselves to be more inclusive,” said Kevin Poelker, the principal, himself a 1998 graduate of De Smet.

The mentors are enrolled in a related elective course touching on educational leadership and service, which may eventually be formally associated with the St. Louis University School of Education. Meanwhile, they engage in weekly reflections, writings and meetings with faculty members concerning interaction with their mentees.

“If you walked in [to our classroom] you might not notice anything different: The mentors are sitting nearby and sometimes they are helping Hadican and Marvin by repeating what we are doing or asking questions about what they learned,” Mr. Poelker said. “Really what they are doing is modeling—so Aiden and Peter are taking clues from what their peers are doing.”

The whole point, Father O’Dwyer added, is to have a community at De Smet “that does a better job of showing us what the church looks like.”

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