Catholic education is well respected for its attention to the individual person, as well as its ability to reach out to students at the margins of society. For decades, Catholic schools have worked with parents of special needs children to provide learning support. However, some parents of children with learning disabilities have expressed sadness that a Catholic education was not available to their sons and daughters. This was due, in part, to the lack of support services necessary to sufficiently accommodate children with special needs.
To address this concern to provide an equal education opportunity to more students with special needs, Archdiocesan officials and the office of the Superintendent of schools, created a task force consisting of school administrators, teachers, and learning consultants. The goal of the task force was to design a universal, school-wide plan to support students with special needs, including those with Down Syndrome, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and Autism Spectrum Disorders such as Asperger’s Syndrome.
After several years of research, the task force released the archdiocesan special education initiative. And thanks to a grant of $50,000 from Jersey City-based Goya Foods, the archdiocese launched the program this past school year, and implemented the support services in all Catholic schools throughout Bergen, Essex, Hudson, and Union counties.
Goya, America’s largest Hispanic-owned food company, continues to provide frequent food and monetary donations to programs and charitable organizations within the archdiocese, often through its Goya Gives campaign.
Eileen O’Neill, the archdiocesan coordinator of special education, is responsible for overseeing the initiative throughout the four counties, and is building relationships with parents, teachers and administrators. One of Eileen’s most vital tasks is to train staff how to use the Response to Intervention (RTI) system.
O’Neill explains, “RTI is a systematic method to identify struggling students early in order to identify the student’s needs and provide interventions immediately. I am so happy at the response I have received and how the schools are using this approach.” O’Neill also confirmed that Archdiocesan Schools continue to expand their ability to use the RTI system effectively through teacher training and program development. This helps provide comprehensive services to all students.
If a student is determined to have special needs after implementing RTI, a special education teacher from the school will meet with the Child Study Team and the parents of the special needs child. Together, they will develop a detailed individualized service plan (ISP) to help the child learn and grow at a pace that is appropriate to his or her needs. The evolution of the ISP is critical to the academic success of the student, and therefore is adjusted as the student progresses in his or her development.
Although each ISP is customized specifically for each child, many of them include resource room learning. Each day, a special education teacher will spend one class period—35-45 minutes—working with the student in a one-to-one environment. This allows the teacher and student to focus on areas of success and areas where more support is needed.
Overall, the special education initiative has been positively received by school administrators, principals, teachers and staff. “The addition of the position of Coordinator of K-12 Special Education has been an asset to the Archdiocese of Newark,” says Dr. Margaret Dames, secretary for education and superintendent of schools. “But most importantly, it is how the position has affected teachers, helping them to understand what they can do for our special children, and it has assisted our students to practice the Catholic faith and simultaneously learn to succeed socially and academically.”
The special education initiative is still in its early stages, and although it has had great success, the archdiocese is aware of the challenges that still need to be addressed, and will continue to provide additional resources in order to deliver the best possible learning experience for students with special needs.
The Archdiocese of Newark’s Office of the Superintendent of Schools is committed to the promotion, preservation, and growth of all Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese. It strives for the development of programs of educational excellence which convey the message of Christ and prepare students for life.
The Office of the Superintendent is entrusted with the responsibility of providing leadership, unity, and service to all elementary and secondary schools of the Archdiocese, whether parochial, private, Religious Community-owned, or regional. It is committed to shaping the future of students by cultivating Catholic School Leadership, and serves as a catalyst and resource by providing vision, direction, and service in a collaborative mode. It strives to act in the spirit of the Gospels, and in accordance with the teachings of the Catholic Church. Visit catholicschoolsnj.org to learn more.