The following article was contributed by Sheila Klich, principal at St. Matthias School in Chicago, Illinois.
Traveling down Western Avenue, on the north side of Chicago, the red brick façade of St. Matthias School looks like any other school in the neighborhood. Little would one suspect that there is a revolution going on inside, and St. Matthias is the right place for a revolution! Its diversity and strong community make it an environment like no other. The real excitement, though, is around inclusion.
Historically, many Catholic schools have not always served those with special needs. For me, as an educator, this attitude always felt unfair to the students, family and school community. It went against the Gospel values of love and acceptance and always rubbed me the wrong way.
As a teacher, through professional development offered by Loyola University, an action research project done for the University of Notre Dame and the mentoring of like-minded administration, I was given the freedom to challenge that line of thought. I broadened my approach to include differentiated instruction in my classes and a small pull-out group for additional support. As Principal, through participating in the All Are Welcome Program offered by Loyola University, I now have the skills and confidence to expand the vision of an inclusive Catholic school. The entire school community is working towards a vision of inclusion where students and teachers are supported. Intentional planning around welcoming diverse learners remains a key piece of the school’s mission.
I have creatively hired with this mission in mind, an Inclusive Learning Coordinator, who is now a crucial member of the administrative team. She helps to streamline services, coordinate resources and deliver professional development. Her creativity and energetic approach toward guiding the teachers, students and families helps create the welcoming, positive energy teachers need to try new things and approach serving all their students.
Differentiation in the classroom is now the name of the game. Teachers scaffold their instruction and the materials used, so that all learners can access information. Students receive support around how they complete assignments, such as written essays. Teachers explore multi-modal avenues for presenting and assessing information. Brain breaks and movement are a regular part of the day for some students.
As with many Catholic schools and good revolutions, finances and budgetary constraints abound. Creativity, resourcefulness and a refusal to surrender have allowed us to leverage a number of resources. The Archdiocese of Chicago, Loyola University, Aspire Illinois, and even a few nearby Chicago Public Schools, LEEP Forward and other organizations have worked with teachers, students and families to provide resources to strengthen our programs.
The National Catholic Educational Association stands out as another strong inclusion supporter, with its 2017 New Directions Exceptional Learners Conference coming June 19-21, 2017 to the Hilton Orrington/Evanston. The St. Matthias School community is excited about the attention the NCEA is giving inclusion. Catholic schools serious about their own inclusion revolutions really should consider attending. A good revolution requires strong allies!
Are we there yet? Has our revolution come to a successful conclusion? No.
We continue to need funding for programs and resources, more avenues for professional development on differentiation. We need to broaden MTSS in our school so that it guides us in our work with all our students.
There are students we cannot serve as successfully as we’d like. However, their needs and their voices push us forward in our quest to “widen our center” and be a community for an even more diverse population.
There’s just one other thing worth noting, should you find yourself on Western Avenue in Chicago; it’s our sign, which reads “All are welcome here”. It’s our calling, our mantra, and our challenge for the future.
If you are interested in learning more, consider registering for the NCEA 2017 New Directions Exceptional Learners Conference in Evanston, IL June 19-21, 2017