To Sister Stacy Reineman, principal at Nativity Catholic School in El Monte, inclusion is a moral issue.
"I strongly believe Catholic education should be available to anyone who desires it," says Reineman, who has headed the K-8 school for 12 years. "Money should not keep children from a Catholic education, and learning abilities should not keep them from a Catholic education."
Reineman has sought to address both concerns. On the financial side, nearly one-fourth of her students receive free or reduced levels of tuition. But although Reineman welcomed a growing number of children with special needs, she and her staff struggled with their education. "In fairness to these children and their families, I would tell them that they needed to be where they could be better served," Reineman says. "And yet, I felt that with certain tools we would be able to keep many of them here. I felt helpless."
That's when Reineman learned about a program at the LMU School of Education, developed with the support of the Los Angeles Archdiocese. For the last decade, the Catholic Inclusion Program – the only graduate program in the nation specifically for Catholic-inclusive education – has prepared school teachers and administrators to become leaders in supporting students with exceptional needs in parochial schools.
The program is at the forefront of a national push to open up the option of a Catholic education to more children with special needs. "In the past, Catholic schools have had to turn away many families because they weren't equipped to teach students with significant learning challenges," explains Victoria Graf, the program's director. "This was heartbreaking for many parents who were committed to their faith and wanted their children to receive a Catholic education."
Now, Graf says, "The bishops are very explicit about the need to educate students with disabilities. There was a realization that we need to live out the Gospel and educate all of God's children. It's a much more inclusive atmosphere now."
The Catholic Inclusion Program started in 1999 as a partnership between LMU and the Archdiocese of Orange. It is now a collaborative program with the Los Angeles Archdiocese; in fact, teachers in Catholic schools within Los Angeles Unified School District boundaries are eligible for substantial financial assistance through the federal No Child Left Behind program.
As with all students in LMU's Special Education programs, those in the Catholic Inclusion Program learn about four major areas: professionalism (including ethics and the law), curriculum-based assessment, differential instruction, and positive behavioral support.
"Our candidates are able to differentiate the curriculum to meet the needs of students who are struggling," says Marianne Mitchell, assistant director of the program. "They are learning skills and strategies that can be applied not only with their own students, but also in assisting other teachers and families. They are very passionate about what they're doing, and it's changing the culture of their schools."
Reineman, who graduated from the program in 2009, says it affected the way she viewed struggling students. "I had been quick to label an underperforming child as lazy," she says. "Now when I see a child who is having academic and behavior problems, I know there's something behind it. I spend time trying to get to the root of the problem, and I have challenged my teachers and parents to do the same."
Reineman says she is now able to admit many more students with special needs than she could before she entered the Catholic Inclusion Program. She estimates that 15 percent of her students have a learning disability. "The first requirement is an openness to working with these kids, but having the skills to go with that openness makes it so much easier," Reineman says. "Before, I had the openness – I wanted the kids here – but I couldn't help them, and it was so frustrating. LMU changed that."