Diocesan News

St. Joseph launches special education program

All are welcome at Nov. 20 holiday fair to support program 

By Reagan Scott 

LINCOLN (SNR) - When Pope Francis called Christians to go to the margins, Msgr. Liam Barr, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Lincoln, took his words to heart.

After speaking last year with Sister Mary Cecilia, principal of St. Joseph School, the two formed a plan that would create a new, more inclusive education program at the school; one that specifically supported the needs special education students in their classrooms.

The new program is called Inclusive Catholic Education and was put into place beginning this past August, providing considerably enhanced in-classroom support to students needing extra resources, and allowing students with significant intellectual disabilities to attend St. Joseph School, a possibility that was not previously plausible.

More than 40 students at St. Joseph have directly benefitted from the program, receiving enhanced, in-classroom resource support, using individually designed educational plans. Three students with Down Syndrome, preschooler Max, kindergartener Jake and fourth-grader Sean, also enrolled at St. Joseph School during this pilot year of the program.

For Msgr. Barr, the desire to support special education students at St. Joseph School came from a source much closer to home. When Msgr. Barr was a year old, his oldest brother Harry passed away at the age of 3, due to a disability.

“That was during an era when not everyone felt the same way about disabilities,” Msgr. Barr said.

When he heard Pope Francis’ call to go to the margins, Msgr. Barr had to ask himself what the ‘margins’ were for St. Joseph’s School. He thought of the special education students, many of whom parishioners sent to public schools in order to receive more attention in the classroom.

Msgr. Barr knew that he wanted to support parishioners with intellectual disabilities, in memory of the brother he had heard so much about growing up. Now, all siblings in these families are able to attend school together and receive the benefit of a Catholic education.

A program of this nature is unique among the Diocese of Lincoln’s parish schools, but other schools in the city are now looking to the program at St. Joseph, and the success that the school has already seen.

Before the Inclusive Catholic Education Program at St. Joseph, Catholic schools in Lincoln have not had the resources to fully support some special education students in the classroom, which meant that they often needed to leave their classroom during the day, or they would have to go to public schools. Msgr. Barr and Sister Mary Cecilia wanted that to change.

“We want [special education students] to spend more than 80 percent of their time with students in their own classroom,” Msgr. Barr said.

All three newly enrolled students with Down Syndrome had been enrolled in public school before this year.  Other St. Joseph students had previously spent only a fraction of the time with their peers in the classroom. This year, they are able to learn alongside the students in their classes, with fewer students needing to leave the classroom for subjects in which they need extra help, such as reading.

After seeing the interactions between the newly enrolled students with Down Syndrome and their classmates, both Msgr. Barr and Sister Mary Cecilia report seeing huge changes in the classroom and school as a whole.

“‘Miraculous’ is the word I use at the moment,” Msgr. Barr said. “One of the most amazing aspects is how our other students embrace and totally accept these special children.”

Sister Mary Cecilia felt the same way.

“There’s something special about watching these students interact that’s beautiful to see,” Sister Mary Cecilia said. “The students themselves have been so welcomed and they’re building leadership skills and social skills among their friends.”

Sister Mary Cecilia said she has seen a big change in the kindergarten class especially.

“The way that kindergarten has come together, they see the individual gifts that each student has,” she said.

The staff at St. Joseph School haven’t been the only ones who have noticed a change in the students.

“Instruction has improved at St. Joe’s for a lot of kids, that’s what is really exciting.” said JD Flynn, a parent of one of the students in the Inclusive Catholic Education Program. “The changes that the school has made to its education approach have impacted a lot of kids, not just those with easily identifiable special needs.”

“St. Joseph’s is reaching people in the same way Pope Francis called us to do and they’re promoting St. John Paul II’s culture of life,” Flynn said.

It has taken a large group of staff, parishioners and parents to ensure that the Inclusive Catholic Education Program was as fit as possible to serve the special education students now attending St. Joseph School this year. With the help of an advisory committee, St. Joseph Parish was able to create a program that is changing the school for the better.

“It has been a benefit to the parish to use the expertise that the faculty and staff have,” Flynn, a member of the advisory committee, said. “There is such great evidence of commitment to the mission of the school.”

Msgr. Barr also acknowledged the fact that Sister Mary Cecilia has been a large part of the success of the program, along with all the committee members who offered their expertise to help the program get started.

“I feel totally blessed with the leadership of Sister Mary Cecilia,” Msgr. Barr said.

The School Sisters of Christ the King have been a great help to the program, and help ensure its continued success.

“The work of the School Sisters of Christ the King has been a great witness to the mission and charism of their community,” Flynn said. 

Currently, the program is only available to families in St. Joseph Parish, and when looking at the long-term plans of the program, the future is hopeful. 

“We want to serve our current students all the way through and serve new ones if we can,” Sister Mary Cecilia said. “It’s an exciting adventure.”

As St. Joseph School embarks on this new adventure, the students, faculty and staff are growing in love for all members of the Body of Christ.

Flynn said, “When we respond in love to a need other people have, God uses that to help us to grow in love for all people.”

For those who may wish to support the new program at St. Joseph School, the parish is hosting its annual holiday fair Sunday, Nov. 20 from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The fair will feature a silent auction, a Valentino’s buffet, bounce houses, carnival games and more. All proceeds will go to support the Inclusive Catholic Education Program to ensure that the school is more accessible for all students, as well as providing supplemental technology for the classrooms.

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