Religious schools have a plan to help all children, educators say

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published January 18, 2017


METRO DETROIT — With a mission to consider God’s will in what they do, educators at religious schools say they may be a great place for some children with special needs.

Meghan Evoy, principal of Our Lady of Sorrows School in Farmington Hills, said that every decision she and her staff make — big and small — is guided by their mission.

“How would Jesus treat this child? In a school setting, who are the least ones? Often it is a child that struggles to learn,” she said. “I think it’s probably more appropriate for a religious school to respond generously to this need.”

In a school with about 800 students, Evoy said they try to help parents of potential students decide if the school is right for them. 

“In most cases, barring those very extreme (cases) ... the resources lie within ourselves. I think all kids are special, and we look at the individual child and we educate the individual child,” she said. 

Gabriela Bala, principal of St. Mary Catholic School in Royal Oak, agreed.

“Part of our mission is to be a school that is welcoming to all children,” she said. “We sure do try to be a place ... for families that are looking for a smaller environment, for an inclusive environment, welcoming and accepting.”

Many parochial schools are able to work with a local public school district to implement individual education plans, or 504 plans, while then giving additional support to the student through parochial school staff members. 

“We have South Lake (Schools) special education teachers come out and work with our kids,” said Karen Lazar, the learning center teacher at St. Joan of Arc Catholic School in St. Clair Shores, who has a special education certification. “I work with all of our kids that have a legal identity as a special education (student), and I work with many students from our school that don’t qualify for the public school special education but they still need help, and that’s a lot of kids.”

Lazar works with 42 children out of 381 at the school one to five times per week, depending on the student’s needs. She mainly focuses on helping with reading and math, providing instruction, and also remedial help to get students back up to the level of their peers. She also works with students on organization so they can be successful in school.

Some parents don’t want to have their child formally tested because of fears of labeling the child. In the parochial school setting, Lazar said, she can still assist those students.

“It’s more than just the public school does, because I don’t have the rules I have to stick with,” she said, explaining that she helps those with cognitive impairments, learning disabilities, autism and more. “We have kids who, if they went to a public school they would get help, but they also see me so they get over and above.

“I’m really proud of our program because I think we help so many students.”

The assistance offered varies from school to school, however, so it’s important for parents to ask what a religious school can provide if they have a child with special needs. 

“We believe that every child is made in the image and likeness of God and that no two children are alike,” Evoy said. “There’s a clear case for getting to know the child, getting to know the child’s parents, and putting it all together to serve the child and in the best possible way.”

Evoy said they focus on making sure teachers have appropriate training if, say, they have a child in their class that has dyslexia or another special need. She makes sure they are provided with special workshops and additional resources. 

“We’re upfront with the parents about what we can offer and what our plan of action would be,” she said. “Communication is key.”

Some students, she said, just need a quiet place to work. Some need a different kind of explanation, and some need to learn better study skills. 

“I think we offer social inclusion and a lot of the soft skills that Catholic schools teach,” such as manners and how to get along, Evoy said of Our Lady of Sorrows. The school also has shared-time teachers from Farmington Public Schools and Berkley Schools. 

Bala said her school partners with Royal Oak Schools to provide speech therapy, occupational therapy and other support services to students who qualify, as well as classroom teachers and a special education coordinator who makes sure students are getting the help they need.

With students who have a learning disability or attention deficit disorder, Bala said the school puts accommodations in place to provide extra support. The school has high-functioning students with autism and even students who need more assistance but whose parents are looking for a more typical classroom environment. While the school cannot provide a paraprofessional for students one on one, Bala said parents are welcome to provide a parapro for their child if they wish.

“(We have a) student with Down syndrome. He has an older sibling who is here, and his parents wanted him to be part of a safe-space learning environment, so they do provide a parapro for him here,” she said. “For us, it’s a win-win.”

Bala said she wishes more schools tried harder to accommodate students at all levels.

“I think, sometimes, it’s a shame that more schools just automatically think ‘we can’t’ instead of ‘how can we,’” she said. 

For more information about Our Lady of Sorrows School in Farmington Hills, call (248) 476-0977. For more information about St. Mary Catholic School in Royal Oak, call (248) 545-2140. For more information about St. Joan of Arc Catholic School in St. Clair Shores, call (586) 775-8370.