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Photo Credit: Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org

Children with Down Syndrome ‘draw us closer to God’

After only a few weeks at her new school, sixth-grader Shellye Solomon gave an emphatic thumbs-up to Msgr. Ted Wojcicki, the pastor at Immaculate Conception Parish in Dardenne Prairie.

"Shellye told Monsignor that she didn't just like it there ... she LOVES it!" Shellye's mom, Patty Solomon, wrote in a text message.

Shellye and her younger brother, Christian, are among 11 students with significant special needs, including eight with Down syndrome, being educated in parish schools for this academic year. Along with Immaculate Conception, Incarnate Word School in Chesterfield and St. Mary Magdalen in Brentwood are educating these children for the first time — seven students in all.

They join Mary Queen of Peace in Webster Groves, which began offering education for students with special needs two years ago and has four on board for 2017-18, the same as it had this past school year.

It's all part of the One Classroom Foundation's drive to bring education for children with special needs to parish schools, with the children's siblings, friends and peers. LeeAnn and Tony Armitage and his boss, Fred Brown Sr., founded the nonprofit; LeeAnn and Tony's son, Christopher, who has Down syndrome, is among the four at Mary Queen of Peace. One Classroom grants fund inclusive education at MQP and Incarnate Word; a grant from the Roman Catholic Foundation of Eastern Missouri enabled Immaculate Conception to add inclusive education.

Tears of joy are never far away when parents talk about their children attending school in their parish communities.

"I find myself crying sometimes because we're so happy about it," Patty Solomon said.

Shellye and Christian, who both were adopted, are the youngest of Patty and Marty Solomon's nine children; their other children, ages 37-20, also attended Immaculate Conception.

"It's kind of like coming home; to be back where my other kids were raised and be part of that same school family is just wonderful," said Patty, who also describes her youngest's previous public school as "wonderful. Schooling is kind of like traveling. It's nice and good at public school, but there's no place like home.

"We didn't change schools because we weren't happy with what we were receiving from the public school, but we just believe in Catholic education ... to have the faith on a daily basis."

The Solomon children's entrance into Immaculate Conception is the answer to years of prayer.

"I've been campaigning (for this) since we brought Shellye home at 6 months; I was thinking she would go there," said Solomon, who persisted despite being told it wouldn't be feasible; educating a child with significant special needs requires significant resources in para-educators, faculty and staff training. "I kept asking and investigating all sorts of avenues and praying and praying and praying. ... This year it finally worked out."

At the behest of Katie Solomon, the previous youngest in the family, prayer also played a pivotal role in the adoptions.

"She prayed for a baby sister, and that's when we adopted Shellye," Patty said, noting that Katie didn't stop there. Her daughter kept on praying but for a boy this time. "I said, 'Katie, you have six brothers,' and she says, 'But I don't have a baby brother.' Then, we adopted Christian. They're both the answers to our prayers. ... We're just always very grateful."

Patty marvels at the intuition of her children with Down syndrome. In April of 2016, Shellye's grandmother died while she was at school; at about the same time, she spontaneously started praying, which she hadn't done before and hasn't done since.

"To suddenly start praying in a public school ... how did she know that?" said Patty, adding that it indicates children with Down syndrome "have insights and a closeness to God. If we really pay attention, they can draw us closer to God." 

>> Inclusive schools

Three schools have added inclusive education for students with significant special needs. They have joined Mary Queen of Peace School in Webster Groves, which is in its third school year of offering inclusive education.

The schools:

• Mary Queen of Peace - 4 children with special needs

• Incarnate Word (Chesterfield) - 3 children with special needs

• Immaculate Conception (Dardenne Prairie) - 2 children with special needs

• St. Mary Magdalen (Brentwood) - 2 children with special needs 

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