Catholic schools get special education grants
Foundation started by Kensington parent gives out more than $100,000
When her son Alex neared his first communion, Francesca Pellegrino wanted to enroll her son in Catholic school, but found there were few options at the small institutions for a boy with mild cerebral palsy and intellectual disabilities.
Alex, now 17, never did end up going to Catholic school. But Pellegrino, of Kensington, wanted to make sure other children would get the chance.
"I started talking to other families and realized I was not alone," she said. So with the help of other parents brainstorming "around the dining room table," in 2004 she founded the Catholic Coalition for Special Education, a nonprofit organization that awards grants to Maryland Catholic schools to help pay the salaries of special education teachers and aids. The organization recently awarded $107,500 in grants to seven Maryland schools, including $10,000 to Holy Cross School in Kensington, $30,000 to Our Lady of Lourdes in Bethesda, $10,000 to St. John the Evangelist and $5,000 to St. Camillus, both in Silver Spring. The CCSE raises all its money from private donations, most of which come from the Annual Spring Benefit, which this year raised $102,000.
The program encourages the schools to provide as much interaction between special education students and students in the general classroom as possible, a connection Pellegrino said equally benefits both groups.
For example, she said, Our Lady of Lourdes recently had a first-grade boy with no disabilities who found little interest in his academics. His teacher asked him to assist a classmate with autism, offering extra help as a buddy, and a light came on.
"Before long, they found that he was transformed," Pellegrino said. "He found his little spot in the school community."
Dean Packard of Chevy Chase said he sees the concept in action at Our Lady of Lourdes, where three of his children, including a daughter with Williams Syndrome, attend school. Williams Syndrome is a chromosomal condition that causes developmental disabilities. Packard was one of the founding members of CCSE, and said his daughter in special education is well-integrated in the larger school community.
The tendency of children to pick on each other disappears with the presence of children in special education, Packard said. He said while children might "pounce on" a perceived weakness in a typical child such as being short or wearing glasses being around special education students "brings out their better angel."
"They help them, they don't try to exploit the weakness," Packard said. "And then all of a sudden there's a slightly more positive attitude in the room, there's a more positive atmosphere in the room."
Our Lady of Lourdes Principal Patricia McGann said the $30,000 grant from CCSE came at a time when the school is expanding its program, having just hired a second full-time resource teacher and aid.
McGann said having the special education community at Our Lady of Lourdes helps teach the children important life lessons.
"You have to learn how to get along with all kinds of people, and if we can show children when they're little that there's nothing to be afraid of, then we can eliminate all that stuff adults have," she said.
Lisa Kane, principal of Holy Cross School, said for a small school, Holy Cross has a fairly large special needs population, with 22 of its 202 students having high incidence disabilities like learning and behavior disorders or mild mental retardation. Two students are on the autism spectrum and 13 more have other disabilities, she said.
Kane, a former resource teacher at Holy Cross, said she was "thrilled" to receive $10,000 from the CCSE to help pay the salary of that school's resource teacher. She said finding a place to educate special needs students can be a challenge for families.
"We're trying to meet these children's needs so they can attend school with their siblings," Kane said. "I think it enriches the classroom experience because frequently students with different learning styles have a different perspective and when they share that perspective I think it helps all the students."
In addition to grants for schools, the foundation also provides grants to people who want to study to become special educators to help combat a national shortage in the profession, Pellegrino said. She said 30 years ago Catholic schools were grappling with how to serve children with basic learning disabilities, so the expanding attention to special education is a good sign.
"We feel that the next natural transition will be to start serving children who may have a developmental disability but may not be getting a high school diploma," Pellegrino said. Schools get grants for one or three years. "It is essentially seed funding and we hope that over three years they will really own the program and will be able to fund it themselves."
For more information about the Catholic Coalition for Special Education, visit www.ccse-maryland.org.