Our Lady of Perpetual Help has pilot for learning

By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald

“Everyone has someone they know with special learning needs,” said Kirsch J. Wilberg, principal of Our Lady of Perpetual Help School in Belle Chasse.

Because of this, Our Lady of Perpetual Help (OLPH) will begin a pilot program of inclusion in the 2018-19 school year. It’s called the Hornets Exceptional Learning Program (or HELP) and is open to students in second through fifth grades with mild or moderate learning exceptionalities such as ADHD, autism, dyslexia, developmental delay and Down syndrome.

“We’re so excited to be part of the pilot program,” said Nikki Giambelluca, the school’s director of admissions, marketing director and middle-school art teacher. “We are getting as close to a well-rounded program as you can get in Catholic schools.”

With this new way of reaching all students, OLPH has adapted schedules and trained teachers to accommodate the students’ needs; added flexible seating and stand-up desks with high-top chairs to some classrooms; and reconfigured the library for individual teaching space.

Kate O’Brien was hired this year as OLPH’s dedicated special education teacher. Erika Semmes, who is special education-certified and certified as a reading specialist in English as a Second Language and has a master’s in teaching and learning, will be the program director and interventionist. Both will help students reach their potential and work with counselor Brianna Barrios to address social/emotional behavior.

Helping teachers adapt

Teachers participated in professional development with the School Leadership Center’s Maeci France to design new lesson plans to teach to the margins – the typical students who don’t need help and those who do – not the average child; and to gain insight on the latest research on inclusion.

“(We talked) about being inclusive attitudinally, but also learned how to implement in our classrooms and the communication process (between all teachers) necessary to meet the students needs,” Giambelluca said.

The ideas of being “equitable” versus being “equal” were explored, and teachers worked in groups on integration in the classroom. They realized that the process of learning looks different for every student, that a teacher needs awareness of what students need to succeed, that they must be respectful and supportive of all accommodations and also build a family atmosphere that accepts everyone for who they are.  

“Being equitable is to give everybody what they need to be successful,” Wilberg said. “It is not equality, where everybody gets the same. Fair is not equal. Fair is everybody gets what they need.”

The school mascot is the “bee,” so Our Lady of Perpetual Help students were already divided into two hives. Hive 1 is for typical students not requiring help. Hive 2 covers students in a typical classroom who require an interventionist in one subject such as English or math.

Now, with the pilot program, OLPH has added Hives 3 and 4. Hive 3 students might not be in a typical classroom for the STEM courses of science, English or math, but could be integrated in art, physical education and lunch. 

Hive 4 is for accelerated students on an advance track. 

“It will be a way of pulling in everything they learned, enriching it and applying it differently – in a much more complex way than the regular student,” Wilberg said.

Wilberg thinks HELP will let students know that they are supported.

“They will be so pleased they are learning in a manner where they achieve success,” Wilberg said.

Identifying students and making sure the necessary targeted instruction is in place are the first steps to success, Semmes said. Including the parent as part of the process is another element that sets a Catholic school education apart.

“Being a smaller school, we can get to know the students and parents and know what they need and want,” Semmes said.

The pilot fits right in with the Gospel value that OLPH will concentrate on this year: inclusion.

“We’re trying to teach students to be inclusive no matter where you live … or if you have food allergies,” she said.

Some background

When the parish was undergoing a study by the Institute for School and Parish Development to evaluate its strengths and areas that might need improvement, sustaining school enrollment came up. One idea was adding a 1- and 2-year-old program.

The enrollment committee also discovered that families were turned away from their parish school because every student’s special needs couldn’t be addressed, even though teachers were already “servicing kids who needed the extra help because parents wanted their children in Catholic schools,” Giambelluca said.

About the same time, Wilberg was developing a five-year strategic plan that included the best ways to help all students succeed. Wilberg had evaluated special education components at other schools and watched her mother, a science teacher, find methods to promote student success long before inclusion was the norm.

Wilberg’s plan for HELP was submitted to the Office of Catholic Schools and was approved for grant money in January. 

“The response has been unbelievable,” Wilberg said, adding how she made an announcement after parish Masses. “After every single Mass, someone walked up to me crying” with tears of joy that their child could be helped. Eight new students have enrolled.

Dr. RaeNell Houston, Office of Catholic Schools Archdiocese of New Orleans superintendent, said this is the first program of its kind in a Catholic school on the West Bank.

“I was delighted to hear from Ms. Wilberg that the Catholic school community at OLPH in Belle Chasse had a desire to answer the call to serve students with developmental disabilities,” Houston said. “I sincerely appreciate Father Kyle Dave and the entire OLPH community’s support of this initiative (to offer) personalized learning for individual students.” 

  Wilberg, who is on the Office of Catholic Schools’ Students with Developmental Disabilities Strategic Planning Committee, said it will start small this year with one classroom, then expand to accommodate other grades in coming years. This way, she said, high schools will have time to catch up.

“I think it’s going to help teach our current students that everybody has added value, and we are all the same,” Wilberg said. “In turn, I think it also will help them learn their gifts.”

Because the student/teacher ratio (6:1 or 8:1) will be smaller, affording students more individual attention than in a typical classroom, and there will be special seating, manipulatives “or whatever it takes for them to learn successfully,” there is an extra cost associated with the HIVE 3 program. A typical Catholic education costs $4,800-$5,900. HIVE 3 tuition will be $11,900 annually. HIVE 2 students who need a boost in English or math will be an additional $1,500 per subject per year. Hive 4 for accelerated students will cost an additional $500 a semester.

Tuition assistance is available.

“We are a community, a team supporting the student,” Wilberg said. “Having a child with special needs – it takes a village.”

“I think all students are inquisitive by nature and want to help other students, but they lack the opportunity because we have taken away  (kids needing help) and put them in special areas,” Melissa Mauduit, a 24-year teacher with experience in inclusion. “It’s important they learn about each other and see each other’s differences … I think it will let them know they are a welcomed part of the community, even though they are a little different.

“That’s what OLPH is all about – welcoming and helping all of the students,” teacher Debbie Naquin said.

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.

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