Catholic schools moving on special needs plans

By Christine Bordelon
Clarion Herald

The Office of Catholic Schools laid out its “work-in-progress” Nov. 10 to expand educational offerings for children with a variety of needs at a non-profit Down Syndrome Association of Greater New Orleans (DSAGNO) meeting.

Dr. RaeNell Houston, new superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, discussed her work with several schools on needed training and resources to accommodate students with learning challenges.

She mentioned two Archdiocese of New Orleans schools with a long history of educating children with challenges: St. Michael Special School and Holy Rosary School. She also explored the strides that the Office of Catholic Schools (OCS) has made in recent years in response to a recently completed strategic plan.

Choices are expanding

The plan identified a need on behalf of parents of children with special needs to have more choices in Catholic education. Houston said Archbishop Gregory Aymond heard the cry from these Catholic parents and gave the Office of Catholic Schools the task of providing more options, Houston said.

Not wanting to reinvent the wheel, Houston said she visited dioceses in Louisiana and other states to evaluate their special education programs.

During the 2014-15 school year, OCS spent $25,000 on professional development for teachers, concentrating on differentiated learning for children with challenges such as dyslexia, a learning disorder characterized by difficulty reading, and dysgraphia, a deficiency in the ability to write by hand.

The following year, another $100,000 was dedicated for professional development and research-based infrastructure improvements as well as accurate evaluations for students with challenges to pinpoint where classroom help was required.

“We don’t want them to leave (Catholic schools),” Houston said. “We want to serve them as best we can.”

Houston mentioned Catholic schools in Metairie and another in St. Tammany that rose to the challenge of meeting its student body needs by coming to the Office of Catholic Schools with a plan.

St. Benilde in Metairie developed “Exceptional Learners,” a program tackling children on both ends of the educational spectrum – those requiring extra help and those who are gifted. Three learning labs with adapted programming were created for language arts, math and gifted.

St. Paul’s School in Covington has been successful in adopting an inclusive education model to meet students’ individual needs.

“Each student has found a place in the community at St. Paul and are part of the Wolf Pack,” Houston said.

Our Lady of Divine Providence in Metairie also has a specialized learning program for children with learning challenges and even autism and are “meeting kids where they are, by creating a plan to meet their needs,” Houston said.

This school year, the Office of Catholic Schools has invested another $400,00 for special teacher development, to expand St. Benilde’s program, and get other schools to participate in the the special-needs’ initiative.

Houston said 10 schools submitted proposals and were approved to work with students with identified special needs. Schools were given seed money to start their own programs. The programs included creating classroom resources for different subjects, an ADHD program and a HiSET program, where high school students can earn a high-school-equivalent diploma, not just a degree of completion at the end of high school.

“It’s beautiful to see these programs developing,” she said. “OCS supports and provides resources for school wishing to do programs for special needs. … We’re looking to fill the void by finding out where the needs are.”

Schools gave outline

Both St. Michael Special School and Holy Rosary gave a thorough presentation on the education available.

Tish Sauerhoff, principal at St. Michael, and admissions coordinator Michelle Rigney, whose child with special needs has attended St. Michael for 17 years, spoke about their Catholic school.

St. Michael has a structured, faith-based environment with high expectations for its diverse student body of 204, ranging in age from 5 to adulthood. Individual plans are established for students with challenges that could be autism, Down Syndrome or other special needs.

“We work for students to reach their potential academically, socially and physically,” Sauerhoff said.

St. Michael was named a school of excellence from the National Association of Special Education Teachers (NASET) and has an elementary school for ages 5-15; vocational training (basically the high school) for ages 16-21; and the Joy Center for ages 21 and older.

In response to a self-examination with input from parents, St. Michael has partnered with area businesses and will soon add an Exploration Academy, where students hone job skills in the community.

“We want them to find meaningful work that they will stick with,” Sauerhoff said.

Holy Rosary principal Cheryl Orillion was a member of the archdiocesan special needs committee. She, too, stressed the individualized instruction given at Holy Rosary “that embraces different styles of learning” for students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

Holy Rosary’s curriculum is definitely “out-of-the-box” of a traditional classroom with lots of hands-on exercises, sensory integration and field trips. Cross-curricular instruction re-enforces subject matter.

A college-preparatory track and a new career-oriented curriculum are offered, as are numerous assessments tools that ensure achievement of academic concepts.

In response to demand, Orillion said Holy Rosary will add an early childhood, Montessori-based curriculum with flexible days in the 2018-19 school year. Beginning with the Class of 2019, Holy Rosary will offer a career-business readiness program called Jump Start that offers a state-approved career diploma for certification in a specific skill.

Academics aside, Orillion said her goal for students is that they understand they are part of a faith community that gives back and deepen their relationship with God.

Members asked questions

Paula LaCour, who is re-energizing DSAGNO, was excited to hear what is on the horizon in Catholic schools for children with special needs. Her daughter, Hannah, 18, is at St. Michael Special School and is an altar server at their Kenner parish, Divine Mercy Catholic Church.

“These kids are quite capable of learning and do learn,” LaCour said. “This is an exciting beginning in the Archdiocese of New Orleans of educating children with intellectual disabilities. … The more they hear from us, the more schools are going to open up and expand opportunities for our kids.”

Houston understands the difficulty parents with special needs children face. She shared her history of educational choices for her daughter, Raelynn, 10, a unique child with special challenges who uses sign language as her first language. While her first choice, years ago, was a Catholic school for Raelynn, she quickly realized the same resources weren’t in place as in public schools near her Belle Chasse home.

“For my husband and me, it was a hard decision,” she said. “Do we do what we want for our child or what she needs? … It’s all about what’s best for our kids.”

Recognizing the strides that archdiocesan Catholic schools have made in the past few years, Houston is re-evaluating if there is a place for Raelynn in Catholic schools and is checking out several options.

More schools throughout the archdiocese will be onboard for the 2018-19 school year, she said, encouraging those attending to check the OCS website under Academics, special needs, and to visit each school with their child. Houston can be reached at 866-7916. Financial assistance is available from OCS and individual schools.

“It’s about finding the right fit for your child and your family,” she said. “every school has a gift and has something to offer. You have to figure out what is best for your child.

Christine Bordelon can be reached at


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