It’s Knight Time at St. Francis Borgia High School — a midday hour when students can grab lunch, meet with teachers, attend school clubs and visit with friends.
Ella Dressel stopped by the cafeteria on a Friday afternoon to pick up a sandwich. She headed toward the theater lobby, where she and her friends typically congregate for lunch. Some were watching an episode of “The Addams Family” on a large TV in the lobby, a nod to the musical that the school will perform this spring.
Ella jumped right into the theater program her first year at St. Francis Borgia, an archdiocesan, coed high school in Washington. This semester, the freshman will be part of the ensemble in “The Addams Family: School Edition.” She said she’s found a home among fellow theater students, whom she described as “super nice and accepting.”
“I’m friends with almost all of them, and I like how many opportunities there are in theater — not just acting, but with things like set design and lighting,” she said.
While Ella is getting to know new friends through theater, she’s also made some connections with other students through a peer mentor program launched this year at St. Francis Borgia. Diagnosed with autism at a young age, Ella receives day-to-day support from juniors and seniors who are peer mentors with the school’s education practicum, a part of the A+ Schools Program. (As part of the program, students serve as tutors or mentors to students and the community.)
Peer mentors assist Ella with understanding the requirements of her schoolwork, helping with assignments and assisting with transitions to classes or taking breaks when needed. But more importantly, Ella and her peer mentors are forming new friendships as she navigates her first year in high school. A different peer mentor is assigned to each of her classes.
Junior Averi Glosemeyer was Ella’s peer mentor in the success skills classroom last semester. Averi said she saw herself less as a tutor and more as a friend. “She’s a big K-Pop and Taylor Swift fan, so we would talk about that a lot,” Averi said. “Whenever she needed help with something like math, I would help her. But it was more friend to friend.”
Peer mentors are the newest addition to St. Francis Borgia’s efforts to create an inclusive environment for students with different learning needs. The school has partnered with One Classroom, a nonprofit organization that supports inclusive education for students with special needs at Catholic schools in the archdiocese, to expand its resources. (The Annual Catholic Appeal supports One Classroom.)
St. Francis Borgia principal Pam Tholen began conversations with One Classroom a couple of summers ago. She knew that St. Francis Borgia Grade School, already partnering with One Classroom, had been accommodating students with greater needs, and she surmised that some of those students were likely on their way to the high school.
Tholen reached out to Colleen Mooney, One Classroom’s director of programming, to learn more about how they could support Ella’s needs and broaden their resources for other students with special learning needs.
“For us, it was more that she’s going to an entirely new environment with a completely different structure” compared to elementary school, Tholen said. “You’re not moving with a whole class anymore. Your schedule’s going to be totally different than a peer’s schedule. And you’re navigating the high school world, with more self-reliance, more accountability and more intense assignments.”
Tholen and Mooney discussed possibly hiring a paraprofessional to assist Ella and other students who needed the resource. The search to fill the role didn’t pan out, and they returned to the drawing board. More conversations led the school to another idea: peer mentors.
“I’m finding out it’s a very common structure for high schools,” Tholen said. “It’s that peer who is so important, and it helps them to know they’re part of the peer community. We took a chance and we trusted that this is what she needs. And it’s exactly what she needed.”
St. Francis Borgia High School has other students with autism and other special learning needs. The school employs a full-time learning consultant for students with mild to moderate special needs, helping them to define a schedule and a strategy for success in the classroom.
With exposure to professional development opportunities through One Classroom and the experience of accommodating Ella’s learning needs, Tholen said the faculty is broadening their view to think about new ways to support students.
A Catholic high school is there to meet students’ academic and social-emotional needs, but also to provide for their spiritual needs, Tholen said. Students of different abilities must be given that opportunity. “God made each one of us with very unique talents and gifts,” Tholen said. “Anybody who walks in these doors, when they’re able to share their talents and gifts with the community, it makes us a richer, more diverse and more compassionate community. It’s a reminder that God calls us to love one another.”
As for Ella, she’s quickly navigating through the halls of St. Francis Borgia with the help of her peers. Ella and one of her peer mentors from last semester, junior Elaina Lober, have participated together in the school’s color guard. Even though the two aren’t paired up in the classroom this semester, they still often stop each other in the hallway to say hello and check in with one another.
“I feel like there’s a lot more options in high school,” Ella said, whether with course choices or extracurricular activities such as theater or color guard. “I feel like I’ve made a lot more friends. And I like that they’ve added this, where seniors and juniors are helping me.”