How a New York Catholic school hopes to transform education for students with disabilities

News: Catholic education

Elementary and middle school bring back sour memories for Christopher Aponte.

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“One of his teachers in eighth grade told him there was a word for him, and that was ‘unemployed,’” his mother Laura Aponte recalls. 

Christopher struggled to keep pace with his classmates and fell behind the curriculum. A week before eighth grade graduation, Laura says middle school officials told her and her husband that Christopher would not be passed to ninth grade.

“I went into warrior mom mode,” Laura says. She wanted to find a school that could better address Christopher’s learning needs. While searching for learning resources for Christopher, she learned about the John Cardinal O’Connor School.

The John Cardinal O’Connor School is a rarity in the Catholic school landscape — the Irvington, New York school serves exclusively second to eighth grade students with learning disabilities.

A 2002 study showed that 7% of children enrolled in Catholic schools had disabilities as defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Comparatively, 11.4% of public school students at the time had disabilities. 

Officials with the Archdiocese of New York, which oversees the school, say the John Cardinal O’Connor School is the “gold standard” of special education among Catholic schools in the country. With small student-to-teacher ratios, multisensory teaching methods and individualized curriculums, the archdiocese hopes it can replicate the school’s model, and better serve more students with learning disabilities. 

Personalized instruction

After Laura Aponte sent in Christopher’s application paperwork, the school’s principal interviewed him. In their conversation, she picked up on a processing issue that impacts Christopher’s ability to study, and he was admitted to the school as a student.

“I wasn’t necessarily looking for a Catholic school, but I was looking for something that had heart and would be considerate to my son’s needs,” Laura told The Pillar. 

Christopher remembers his time at the John Cardinal O’Connor School fondly. 

“It was other-worldly. I had a great teacher,” he says. “There were maybe 12 kids in my class, maybe. She would spend time with every kid and have us explain the content to her to make sure we understood it.”

It was time and attention he does not remember getting from any previous teacher. Kristen O’Leary, who’s been principal at the school for eight years, says she strives to create a welcoming and inclusive environment. 

“Often these kids have been bullied or made fun of for not being able to read or whatever they are going through,” O’Leary says. “It’s a safe place. They’re happy to come to school every day and find that they finally fit in.” 

There are about 70 children in the building, and class sizes never go above 15 students per teacher. The class size limit for younger kids is 12. Younger students have a classroom assistant in addition to a teacher.

“As kids get older, we don’t want them to have that assistant anymore,” O’Leary told The Pillar. “We want them to be prepared for a normal high school environment that doesn’t have that much support.” 

Although the school serves students in second to eighth grades, they are not grouped by grade level in the building. Students are arranged in cohorts based on instructional level, and their groupings are referred to as “teams” rather than “grades.”

“We use the Orton-Gillingham approach to instruction, which includes reading. Under that umbrella there’s a program called PAF, Preventing Academic Failure, so we use that program here for teaching students how to read and spell,” assistant principal Kimberly Cinguina says. “We use the Judith Hochman writing program, teaching basic writing skills. And that’s also called The Writing Revolution, a highly systemic and direct instructional approach for teaching students how to write.”

Cinguina says parents who are attracted to the school are often looking for one or more of particular instructional methods. Every student at the school has either an IEP, Individualized Education Plan, or IESP, Individualized Education Services Plan. 

IEPs and IESPs detail how a student is performing, modifications needed for their successful learning and ways to measure a student’s outcomes. Public schools are legally required to offer IEPs for children who qualify for special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Private schools are not required to offer IEPs and often offer service plans instead. 

The John Cardinal O’Connor School runs its own special education program with its own teachers. The Irvington Union Free School District provides other required services like speech therapists and occupational therapists. That partnership is critical to the school’s offerings — and is not always offered by public school districts.

Instilling Catholic identity

O’Leary says the John Cardinal O’Connor School strives to maintain a solid Catholic identity while remaining open to and welcoming of students who are not Catholic.

About 70% of the student body is Catholic. Some of the non-Catholic students are Protestant, and others are not Christian at all. 

“That actually becomes part of the curriculum at some point,” Cinguina says. “If we’re talking about a particular Catholic value or doctrine, a student who is a non-Catholic may say, ‘Well, in my religion we do this!’ So it’s really a learning experience for the children as well.”

Everyone in the school engages in daily prayer together. During non-pandemic times, the school’s students attend Mass together once a month and on holy days of obligation. 

Like other schools around the country, the John Cardinal O'Connor School's instructional methods were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic — school was online five days a week from the end of March 2020 through the end of June 2020. For the 2020-2021 school year, students were back in the classroom five days a week. In-person instruction continues today. 

Many students complete their sacraments of initiation while enrolled at the school.

“Many of our students who were in public school may not have been able to participate in religious education,” Cinguina says. “Maybe because they have special needs and there wasn’t a good program for them. Maybe because they were overwhelmed by their school work, and the thought of going to after-school religious ed was overwhelming.”

The school uses service projects like toiletries collections to teach students about ways they can personally, positively impact the world around them. 

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A ‘completely’ replicable model 

The John Cardinal O’Connor School gets a large part of its operating budget through fundraisers, according to O’Leary. 

“I’m not sure whether there are other schools that embody all of the components of this school,” Archdiocese of New York superintendent of Catholic schools Michael Deegan says. “Is it worthy of replicating? Absolutely. Can it be replicated? Completely. What we’re really looking for are funding opportunities in the community and metropolitan area so we can duplicate it in other locations in the archdiocese.” 

The John Cardinal O’Connor School is not the only educational opportunity for children with disabilities in the Archdiocese of New York.

Of the archdiocese’s 171 Catholic schools, seven offer programs for kids with special education needs. The Alfred E. Smith Foundation and Cabrini Health Foundation help fund those programs, according to Deegan. He says the archdiocese is actively seeking funding opportunities to grow its special education offerings.

“We’re looking to secure other grants from other organizations to help us expand from seven to 14 to 21 in the near future,” Deegan says. “We want all children to have access to a Catholic education regardless of their learning challenges.”

Deegan believes both models of schooling — settings that provide exclusively for students with disabilities and settings where children with disabilities learn along those without disabilities — are worth pursuing.

“We serve a multiplicity of children with many differentiated needs. So having the setting the John Cardinal O'Connor School provides is important for the children who need that setting. But some students' needs can be met in other schools, so it is also good to invest in the programs in those schools,” he said.

Sister Dale McDonald, vice president of public policy for the National Catholic Educational Association, told The Pillar that while it is beneficial for students with intellectual disabilities to interact daily with other kids, she could not offer a blanket assessment of whether an inclusive classroom, or a specialized environment like the John Cardinal O'Connor School, is a preferable approach.

Ultimately, she said, it depends on the particular student's learning needs. She noted that under federal “least restrictive environment” regulations, students with disabilities must be educated alongside peers without disabilities to the maximum extent possible.

“Prior to the ‘60s, children with any type of disability were totally isolated, totally separated from...‘normal’ kids. But some of them didn’t need to be. People started to realize it’s a civil right not to discriminate against kids with disabilities.”

Deegan said the different choices in the archdiocese allow families to select an option that works best for their child.

“I'd like to be able to replicate JCOS and at the same time expand services to the programs that currently exist at other schools,” he said. “Given the need, I think that it is possible to do both...The sky's the limit, but it's really all about funding. The will is there. The only thing holding us back is funding.”

Funding is an issue. Tuition at the John Cardinal O’Connor School costs $16,000 per year — more than most Catholic high schools in the archdiocese. The Archdiocese of New York offers income-based financial aid to students. 

“We’ve seen families get anywhere from 25% to 75% depending on the level of need,” O’Leary said. “This school year was actually the first that it was available.”  

Historically, funding special education in Catholic schools has been a challenge nationwide. In 1996, a group of parents in Kansas City founded an organization called FIRE Foundation. The non-profit aims to provide children with special needs the opportunity for an inclusive education in their respective Catholic schools. A different group of parents in Washington D.C. and Baltimore started the Catholic Coalition for Special Education in 2005. Both organizations provide grants to help schools hire special educators, certify existing teachers and help families navigate the world of special education. 

“[W]hen it comes to education many Catholic children with disabilities are unable to attend their parish schools due to limited resources,” coalition president Francesca Pellegrino says on the coalition’s About Us page. “This is where CCSE steps in to help parishes and their schools access the resources they need to welcome all God’s children.” 

Sister McDonald says at the end of the day, most parents of children with learning disability want to see their kids treated normally at school — welcomed and well-educated. 

“Hopefully another diocese or two will get together a school like (the John Cardinal O’Connor School),” McDonald said. 

A guest post by
Adora Namigadde is a journalist striving to use her gifts for God's glory.