They went in expecting to find a quiet, dismal sort of place and instead discovered the polar opposite: a modern, vibrant and colorful campus ringing with the sounds of happy, busy students.
Earlier this school year, sixth graders from St. Clement of Rome School in Metairie spent a morning of reading, recreation and art while paired with a buddy from St. Michael Special School – and were left nearly speechless in the process.
“I didn’t know their art room would be that big!” marveled St. Clement’s Tyler Boss, admiring the beautifully executed artwork produced by St. Michael’s multi-talented special needs students and expressing his amazement that the studio included a kiln and a pottery wheel.
The studio visit, part of a campus tour led by Ann Higgins, St. Michael’s director of development and administration, was just the beginning of the surprises. The St. Clement students and their adult chaperons, who included Father Luis Rodriguez, pastor, and Chad Howat, principal, were impressed by the sheer variety of the school’s amenities: its carpentry workshop; its chef-style kitchen where students were learning how to make gingerbread pastries; its room for the sorting of beads – for eventual resale to local Carnival krewes; its chapel in which Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta attended Mass.
Higgins told them that in addition to learning how to read, write and do math, St. Michael students can choose from activities such as student council, cheerleading, two choirs and assisting at school Masses.
“Everything you have in your school we try to have in our school,” Higgins said, adding that St. Michael places a strong emphasis on life skills, with a goal of helping students gain independence. Those skills include how to make a bed, sort clothes for the laundry, sew and prepare simple meals.
“Our students go to the Walmart first to buy the items on their grocery list, so they’re also using their math and their reading skills,” Higgins said.
After the tour, the St. Clement students were introduced to their St. Michael buddies, each pair taking a photograph together as a memento.
After claiming various spots on the gym floor to read the book “Danny and the Dinosaur,” balls of all shapes and sizes were brought out for 30 minutes of free play that included basketball and throwing footballs through targets.
Tyler said he was impressed by the ball-handling skills of his buddy Noah.
“I thought maybe he would not be able to play, but he was really good! He made almost every shot,” Tyler said, adding, “The thing I want to tell people is that children with special needs understand things a lot better than we think they do.”
The buddies concluded their time together by decorating a frame for their photograph and sharing a snack of juice and animal crackers.
The buddy program was intentionally gender specific, with St. Clement’s sixth-grade girls buddying up with St. Michael girls the previous day. The girls did all the same activities as the boys, except for the recreational one: instead of playing ball, St. Clement’s girls taught their buddies a cheer, presenting each girl with pop-poms in St. Michael’s school colors of blue and white.
St. Clement sixth grader Alyssa Pemberton said her time at St. Michael was just like any other morning spent with a friend.
“I learned that God made us all different – he gave us different looks and (different ways that) we learn and act,” Alyssa said. “Everyone is different, and we should understand that.”
St. Clement’s visit was funded through a service-learning grant from the Joe and Dorothy Dorsett Brown Foundation.