Phoenix’s Brophy College Preparatory –December 2, 2022
Inclusion in Action
St. Thomas is Keeping Families Together with Inclusion
Just across the street from a dentist’s office and a 7-Eleven, a K-8 Catholic school in northeast Phoenix is doing something unconventional: providing an inclusive private school education to students with disabilities.
Laying the Groundwork for Inclusive Learning
Inclusive learning is relatively new in the nearly 70-year history of St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic School. It wasn’t yet an option when Pamela Hudgins, the school’s counselor, joined the school 20 years ago. So, in 2009 when her own daughter needed more accommodations and support for dyslexia and ADHD, beyond what was offered in the small group reading class, their family had to go elsewhere.
“My daughter Lauren struggled throughout her time at St. Thomas,” Pamela remembers. “Because of the increasing academic workload in elementary school, she began to show signs of anxiety and removed herself from outside activities fearing that she couldn't keep up with the academic demands.”
Ultimately, Pamela and her husband Wes made one of the most difficult decisions of their daughter's academic life: they removed her from St. Thomas and enrolled her in a public school that offered additional supports via an IEP.
A few years later when Annemarie Mansour’s second-grade son, Joe, was diagnosed with dyslexia, things were different. Annemarie serves as St. Thomas’s preschool director, and she was worried her son’s disability would require him to leave the school as well. Thankfully, St. Thomas’s support for students with disabilities had expanded.
“Joe was welcomed into small group reading,” Annemarie says. “While he worked on the same curriculum that the students in the larger classroom setting were working on, he received the extra support and intervention he needed to be successful.”
Joe’s small group reading specialist at St. Thomas had specific training to support students with dyslexia. And while not all students receiving the school’s new reading and math small group instruction carried a diagnosis, each student greatly benefited from the differentiated learning instruction.
These accommodations and supports made it possible for some students with disabilities, like Joe, to remain at St. Thomas. However, it wasn’t enough to serve all the students the school wanted to reach. In 2017, as Joe entered fifth grade, he and other students with diagnoses transitioned to the care and support of St. Thomas's new Academic Support Specialist, who was an essential piece of the school’s new vision to offer an inclusive, Catholic education to students with different abilities.
Embracing Inclusion to Keep Families Together
Today, inclusive learning at St. Thomas begins with the school’s Educational Support Program. Students with disabilities and those experiencing difficulties in specific academic areas join the program, which gathers teachers, administration, and parents to collaboratively support and assist students. Of the school’s 543 students, 80 are in the program and have Student Support Plans.
These Student Support Plans, which are similar to public school students’ 504 plans, are created by students’ families and faculty to map out the supports and accommodations necessary to help each child succeed. Pamela, the school’s counselor, takes an active role in supporting students with their plans. Maryanne Vaughn, the school’s Educational Support Specialist, ensures students receive the accommodations and modifications necessary to succeed from fifth through eighth-grade graduation, including extended time on tests, testing in a separate location, and the use of devices for audiobooks and note taking.
“The STA community is proud of all of our students. As the Educational Support teacher I am particularly proud of my kids on Student Support Plans,” remarks Maryanne. “Their perseverance and grit in facing and overcoming learning challenges is inspiring. Their hard work and creativity make the learning environment at Saint Thomas richer.”
All of these changes are making a difference.
“St. Thomas is blessed that our administration has dedicated staff and the resources necessary to support all of our students,” says Annemarie. The administration provides in-service trainings, funds for conference participation, and necessary supplies. “In partnership with parents, students who in the past may have needed to leave St. Thomas to receive support are now able to stay at our school and graduate with their peers.”
As for Annemarie’s son Joe, he graduated from St. Thomas with honors and now attends the rigorous Brophy College Preparatory where he is happy, thriving and academically successful. In fact he is a student athlete and taking Honors and Advanced Placement courses. Joe’s family credits his academic achievement to the foundation he received at St. Thomas, a life changing foundation that is now available to more students with disabilities because the school embraced inclusive learning.