The mission of St. Mary’s Special Services’ stand-alone preschools — one in north St. Louis County, the other in south county — was simple.
“To help children with special needs reach their highest God-given potential,” said Cathy Johns, the associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction in the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Education and Formation.
However, three-fourths of the children in the preschools didn’t have special needs (among an enrollment of about 80), and the question became as a simple as the mission.
“Are we meeting our mission?” asked Johns, then answering, “No, not when only 25 percent of the children are diagnosed with special needs.”
So, the decision was made to close the preschools — last year in north county and Aug. 31 in south county — but the mission of helping children with special needs “reach their highest God-given potential” will continue in the archdiocese, just in a different way and in different places.
“We decided to bring service providers into schools that already exist so that we’ll be bolstering our Catholic schools and, at the same time, we’ll be meeting the needs of children with special needs,” said Johns, adding that in-school services also will help identify and aid students who “maybe are not diagnosed. …
“If we can reach these students who are either already diagnosed, or are at risk, in their earlier years, we can build a solid foundation. We’re helping them be successful in a school setting, and we all know that the more education you have, the more successful you are.”
There’s cost-savings as well.
“We are saving thousands of dollars if children don’t need special-education help throughout their school careers,” she said.
Instead of stand-alone preschools, St. Mary’s Special Services has shifted to regular parish schools and archdiocesan elementary schools. In the 2017-18 academic year, it partnered with the Federation of Catholic Schools in the North County Deanery to bring special-needs services to Catholic elementary schools, with a social worker/speech pathologist covering six schools. This year, the program will expand to all 10 Catholic elementary schools in the Federation, with an additional counselor coming on board thanks to a grant from the Roman Catholic Foundation of Eastern Missouri.
In south county, the program will be similar, though it won’t kick off at the beginning of the school year in mid-August. St. Mary’s-South will close after the school year starts, so the second semester is the earliest opportunity for inclusive education. Just as she did in the early stages of the partnership with north county schools, Johns has been meeting with principals of south county schools to access needs related to inclusive education.
“That gives us time to build a program,” Johns said, adding that what works in north county might not work for south county schools. Also, south schools have to be ready to change.
“The school has to make sure it meets the needs of the child with special needs because it’s an injustice to say, ‘Yes,’ to a family knowing that you really don’t have what it takes” to provide inclusive education, Johns said, adding that a balance also must be struck between the needs of students with special needs and typically developing students. “Neither can be at the expense of the other.”
According to Johns, the services provided in the new approach will complement the work of the OneClassroom Foundation, which has been providing funding for parish schools to educate students with severe special needs such as Down Syndrome or high-level autism. The foundation’s goal is that all students with special needs receive Catholic education in parish schools. Johns shares that goal, though the steps toward it will be incremental.
The closure of the St. Mary’s Preschools and shift of services to parish/archdiocesan schools is an early step.
“I think we have to work toward that, but schools have to get their head around what it takes to meet the needs of children who have mild or moderate needs,” Johns said. “Once they do that, it’s much easier to take that next step to help someone who has more significant or severe needs.”