It was a day of firsts Thursday as Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades made his first school visit of the year and his first ever visit to St. Louis Academy in New Haven, home to the Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend’s first special-education program.
Rhoades said the program was an idea of his that he’d been looking to implement since he took over for former Bishop John M. D’Arcy. He said St. Louis Principal Cheryl Klinker came forward eagerly to aid special-education students.
“This is just such a blessing,” Rhoades said. ‘I’m grateful to the pastor, principal and teachers for embracing this as part of their mission.”
The diocese will see its biggest challenge in funding the program. The seven special-education students, whose disabilities range from mild to moderate, accepted to St. Louis required additional staff and transportation, Klinker said.
Klinker, who has been the principal at St. Louis for two years, served as the director of special education at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School for 14 years. She said the special-ed program at St. Louis is the first of its kind in that it is funded by the district instead of the school’s parish and accepts students with more moderate disabilities.
But Rhoades hopes to find additional funding to expand the pilot at St. Louis to other schools across the district, including to South Bend.
“I don’t want to turn any student away, but we wouldn’t accept any student unless we knew for sure we could give them a quality education,” he said.
In the first three weeks of school, already the program has earned positive reports, Rhoades said.
Klinker said the school’s new students have adjusted well and are making connections with their classmates.
“I’m amazed at what’s happened here,” she said.
Klinker said initially she thought the program should be in a larger school. St. Louis is in a rural area and has just 67 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.
This year the school has 21 new students, who come to St. Louis from districts such as Fort Wayne Community and Northwest Allen County schools, creating more diversity in the school. Klinker said not all 21 students are receiving vouchers.
Special-education students were asked to submit an application to ensure the school could meet each student’s needs. Klinker reviewed the applications and visited students at home. The seven accepted have a range of disabilities including Down syndrome and autism.
Welcoming special-education students has taught general-population students compassion and acceptance, Klinker said.
“We each have special gifts and talents that are different,” she said. “We’re located in a rural community without a lot of diversity, but students are embracing that diversity.”
The special-education students spend most of their time with general-population students, but are pulled out for specific skill work.
“What really aligns with the Catholic faith is the inclusion of all students,” Klinker said.
Rhoades agreed the program very closely connects with the Catholic mission in respect of life and dignity for every human person.
“Every child is a gift including those with disabilities, who really are a special gift,” he said.