Monica and Patrick Duffy of Columbia Heights had hoped their three children, Kevin, Colleen and Rachel, could go to their parish school, St. Charles Borromeo in St. Anthony, but it hasn’t worked out.
Colleen, 7, their middle child, has Down syndrome, and the school said it wasn’t able to provide the special support she needs.
The school told her that children with special needs have certain rights, including having the needed services identified in an Individual Education Plan, or IEP. In Colleen’s case, that included speech therapy, adaptive gym and one-on-one help. Catholic schools have limited resources, Monica said. The school would get into trouble if it enrolled her and didn’t meet her IEP, and it couldn’t.
When Monica got the news that her daughter couldn’t attend St. Charles, she almost felt worse for the principal and staff. (“I gave them a lot of credit. They really tried,” she said.”) Still, the decision was devastating.
“It is heartbreaking for people to be turned away from anywhere because of disability,” she said. “But when you are turned away from a place of faith, it is that much more painful. That is where people seek solace and peace.”
A nonprofit is born
That difficult experience led Monica and Patrick to start asking questions. They found that other states have organizations that help children with disabilities to attend Catholic schools. In particular, they got interested in the Kansas City, Mo.-based Foundation for Inclusive Religious Education (FIRE). The foundation provides financial grants to schools within the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph to subsidize special education in parish schools.
Last summer, the Duffys started a nonprofit called Exceptional Catholic Minnesota. They hope to replicate FIRE’s model.
So far, Exceptional Catholic is an all-volunteer effort. The Duffy’s have invested $3,000 to $4,000 out of pocket and launched a website. They are working to get 501(c)3 status so they can accept tax-deductible gifts. They also have expanded the mission — to connect people with disabilities and those who care about them with faith-based resources, such as accessible churches and prayer groups.
Exceptional Catholic has begun to survey Catholic churches to find what accessible features they have. It posts information on individual churches on its website, such as “elevator to the choir loft,” “wheelchair accessible,” “large-print missals,” or “interpreter for hearing impaired.”
The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has more than 200 churches, Monica said. The survey is about 25 percent complete.
Archdiocese: ‘We wish them well’
Promoting Catholic school inclusion remains a long-term goal for Exceptional Catholic.
Catholic and other private schools could offer special education services if they choose, but they are not obligated to do so, according to staff at the PACER Center, which provides information and training to families with children with disabilities. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal special education law, covers public schools, not private schools, it said.
Asked about Catholic school inclusion, the archdiocese reiterated what Monica already had heard. It said in a written statement that Catholic schools work diligently to accommodate physically challenged children and children with learning differences. However, it noted, non-publicly funded schools have financial limits.
Regarding the Duffys and Exceptional Catholic, it wrote: “We value and commend their commitment to Catholic education and we wish them well with their endeavor while recognizing the enormous financial resources that would be required to make this possible on a system-wide basis.”
The Duffys are pushing ahead. As Monica sees it, inclusion would improve the learning experience. “Children with disAbilities bring much to the classroom including giving the other students opportunities to grow in patience, grace and virtue,” she wrote. “These things are essential in a faith-based school.”
Seeking other parents
Exceptional Catholic is in the early stages of trying to build a parent network. Monica said: “Believe it or not, this sounds really wacky — the most difficult problem I have encountered is finding other moms and dads like me and Pat,” families that have children with disabilities and who want them to attend Catholic school.
Exceptional Catholic needs a critical mass of people before launching a fundraising effort similar to FIRE.
“First and foremost, we have to increase awareness that inclusive Catholic education for children with disAbilities is a possibility,” Monica wrote.