Panel provides hope for student success despite learning disability

Sophie Ohanian, a freshman at Notre Dame Preparatory, speaks at the ACSDF panel. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Fischer/ACSDF)
Sophie Ohanian, a freshman at Notre Dame Preparatory, speaks at the ACSDF panel. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Fischer/ACSDF)
Arizona Catholic Schools Disabilities Fund

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Parents are encouraged to look into the Empowerment scholarship and other student tuition organizations available in Arizona that allow for school choice.

Click here for more information on the Arizona Catholic Schools Disabilities Fund.

By Gina Keating
The Catholic Sun

Parents seeking a Catholic education for children with learning disabilities in the Diocese of Phoenix have support from a local grassroots organization.

The Arizona Catholic Schools Disabilities Fund, founded two years ago by Lisa Colangelo Fischer, Ph.D., partners with Catholic schools to educate and support parents, teachers and staff by advocating inclusion of special needs students.

Fischer, a graduate of Xavier College Preparatory, wears a cochlear implant due to a profound sensorineural hearing loss since birth.

The group presented a panel discussion titled, “Success in Catholic Schools from an Exceptional Perspective,” at St. Francis Xavier Parish, Oct. 2.

Parents, advocates and special education teachers were among audience members to hear success stories of children with learning disabilities attending Catholic schools like St. Francis Xavier, St. Gregory, Xavier College Preparatory and Our Lady of Perpetual Help School in Scottsdale.

Founding board member, Kate Witt, is a senior at Xavier College Preparatory who was diagnosed with double deficit dyslexia in seventh grade while attending St. Francis Xavier.

Following her diagnosis, Kate asked for additional help and took class notes “my way” to help ease anxiety.

Jesuit Father Dan Sullivan, pastor of St. Francis Xavier Parish, leads the opening prayer for the ACSDF panel Oct. 2. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Fischer/ACSDF)
Jesuit Father Dan Sullivan, pastor of St. Francis Xavier Parish, leads the opening prayer for the ACSDF panel Oct. 2. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Fischer/ACSDF)

“Attending a Catholic high school with non-or-little accommodations was difficult but not impossible,” she said. “Always talk to your teachers and explain how you learn and what you need help with. When they understand, it works out.”

Her mother and founding board member, Betsy, is aware of the need for accessible Catholic education for children like her daughter.

“This is so huge, and schools need the money to do this,” Betsy said. “We support the schools through education and funding so they’ll say, ‘yes, we’ll take your child.’”

Colleen McCoy-Cejka, assistant superintendent of the diocesan Catholic Schools Office and president of ACSDF, said a recent $40,000 grant from the Catholic Community Foundation provided training and resources to each of the 28 elementary schools for special education.

Additionally, $13,000 of the grant will go toward scholarships for teachers who want to pursue a certificate or degree in a special education program.

Parents, students and teachers from throughout the diocese attended the ACSDF panel Oct. 2 to learn how to address students with special needs. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Fischer/ACSDF)
Parents, students and teachers from throughout the diocese attended the ACSDF panel Oct. 2 to learn how to address students with special needs. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Fischer/ACSDF)

“ACSDF has the potential to help schools break down the barriers that they see as prohibitive to admitting students with special needs by providing teacher training and resources,” she said. “As long as a school believes its mission is providing a Catholic education to every family and child that wants one, we want to help that school find a way to meet that Catholic mission.”

Parents need to know there isn’t a way to standardize special education in the diocese because each school is individually incorporated. Schools build their programs based on available resources, McCoy-Cejka said. “It’s a balancing act. So, some schools can admit more students because they have the support system in place while other schools are limited.”

Money is available for students with disabilities through Disabled/Displaced scholarships so that parents can afford a Catholic school tuition and any additional therapies a child might need outside of school, such as speech, occupational or physical therapy. McCoy-Cejka recommended talking to the principal, tuition or business manager or admissions person at any school to learn about scholarships a child might qualify to receive.