Exceptional learners find welcome in Catholic schools

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Larissa Tellis, a fifth-grader with Down Syndrome at Annunciation Catholic School in Cave Creek, works in the school’s resource room. (Courtesy of Annunciation Catholic School)
Journey of the Exceptional Family Winter Gathering

8:30 a.m.-12 p.m. Jan. 27

Bourgade Catholic High School, 4602 N. 31st Ave., Phoenix

The Exceptional Learners Parent Group Winter Gathering will include Mass, breakfast and programs for parents and children.

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Arizona Catholic Schools Disabilities Fund

The fundraising mechanism used to provide equipment and training to schools for students and teachers.

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Catholic schools are entrusted with the mission of nurturing and developing the faith in students, and that includes those with special needs.

Colleen McCoy-Cejka, assistant superintendent for Catholic schools in the Diocese of Phoenix, said the mission of the Church requires that it provide a faith-based education to any family that desires it.

“Historically in the U.S., Catholic schools have not been great about their faithfulness to this mission. With encouragement from the USCCB and our own bishop here in Phoenix, we are doing our best to meet the needs of more students than ever by authentically embracing our Catholic mission,” McCoy-Cejka said.

In a letter to Catholic educators in the diocese last March that introduced a guidebook for diversified learners, Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted referenced Pope Francis’ words that people with disabilities are “a gift for the family and an opportunity to grow in love, mutual aid and unity.” The bishop invited teachers to accompany him in “this primary mission of the Church” to form “all children, including those with special needs, to know, love and serve Jesus Christ.”

It’s a development Lee Wuertenburger has welcomed. Both her sons are dyslexic. David, 12, is a sixth-grader at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Scottsdale and Thomas, 14, is a freshman at Notre Dame Preparatory.

At OLPH, Lee said, the teachers give David “the support he needs to be successful.” An outside tutor has worked hand-in-hand with the school. At NDP, teachers offer plenty of office hours. “It’s a great school and they are doing a lot to help,” she said.

“My children are in Catholic schools for formation and theology,” Lee said. “Our faith is very important for us.” Parents must be advocates for their children, she said, and that’s a role she’s expanded on to help other families. Lee is the parent liaison for the Exceptional Learners Advisory Board that assists families with students attending Catholic schools in the diocese. The group meets three or four times a year and provides networking opportunities for parents.

“I want these parents to realize that if that’s what you want for your children, if you are persistent, you can find the right fit,” Lee said.

Theresa Yslas can relate. She decided before she even began classes at Northern Arizona University that she would study special education. She worked for some years in the Prescott Unified School District where she gained experience she would later put to use for the Church — and in her own family.

While her son was still a toddler, Yslas said she noticed he was not a typically developing child. He was diagnosed with significant learning disabilities and attended public school. By middle school however, it became clear that the local public school wasn’t the best fit. Yslas said Nick was provisionally accepted to Sacred Heart Catholic School.

“The principal said they would give it a month to see how it went,” Theresa said. When a new principal began her tenure, Yslas met with her and spoke of the arrangement. “She said, ‘This is a Catholic school and of course he is welcome.’ She made it really clear that everyone is welcome.”

Yslas became a teacher at Sacred Heart in 1997 and brought with her the consultative process that the Prescott school district used. Students with severe issues are transported to a nearby public school for services but spend the bulk of their day at Sacred Heart.

“There’s still a mentality out there that these students are a burden and slow things down,” Yslas said. “But if you look at them with God’s eyes, you see the blessing.”