By Michelle Castleman
NEW HAVEN — Nestled between corn fields in the fertile soils of rural eastern Allen County, a special place became even more special this fall as St. Louis Academy opened its doors and said “yes” to an all-new initiative by the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend Catholic School’s Office to assist with the funding of a program to meet the needs of students with disabilities during the 2012-2013 school year.
Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades observed the lack of such a plan during his 2011 school visits and put finding a “test plot” on his priority list. Then first-year principal at St. Louis Academy, Cheryl Klinker, casually mentioned to Superintendent of Catholic Schools Dr. Mark Myers that “we could take a couple kids” and the rest is history.
New staff was hired, current teachers were trained and seven new students (and a few of their siblings) were admitted to the pilot school over the summer months.
“The way things have just totally evolved is all through God’s hand. Maybe I was just a naive new principal,” Klinker jested. But most likely it was Klinker’s 14 years of expertise in the special-needs field at St. Vincent de Paul School in Fort Wayne and her founding of its resource program.
“I feel very passionate about the need in our diocese,” Klinker said. “Many of the larger schools have self-funded programs in place, but the smaller schools have difficulty financially supporting the added challenge.”
“I have a comfort level with special (education) and I know special ed,” she added.
And for this reason, Dr. Myers is very grateful to St. Louis Academy staff and school board, Principal Klinker and Father Stephen Colchin, pastor, for committing to the challenges and implementation of this exceptional program.
In his first grade-school visit of the academic year, Bishop Rhoades was greeted at the door Aug. 30 with a sign held by fourth-grade students.
Daphne Dimberio could barely contain herself with excitement as she welcomed the bishop with a hug, “I can’t wait for you to say Mass!”
A special celebration in honor of the parish’s patron saint — St. Louis — followed. In his homily, the bishop reviewed the history of and wonderful qualities possessed by the young King of France, describing him as a holy and compassionate leader. Next he encouraged students to live out the two great commandments this school year and strive to become holy in all that they do.
Bishop Rhoades expressed his sincere gratitude to the students, pastor, staff and entire St. Louis Parish community for supporting and embracing the inaugural launch for the new program. “The mission of Catholic education is to serve as many of our students as possible,” he said.
After Mass, Bishop Rhoades made his traditional rounds visiting each classroom where each of the 66 enrolled were anxiously waiting.
His questions and theological concepts gradually became more complex as he moved from the primary to higher grades, starting with the “baa-ing” kindergartners as he described his role as the good shepherd to an explanation of the mystery of the Incarnation and definition of “consubstantial” with the seventh and eighth-graders.
In each room, Bishop Rhoades opened the floor to questions and students found out everything from the bishop’s favorite kind of pizza to what he liked most about being a bishop. Trying to clarify a bishop’s role, third grader Cade Campbell inquired, “So, you’re like a back-up to Jesus?”
The bishop’s final stop was the school’s library room, which was converted over the summer months to a dual purpose room now sharing space with the resource center — the hub for the heart of the special needs program — where one young student proudly displayed his morning accomplishments.
“I believe we will be successful because an idea is only as strong as its weakest link and every staff member in this building is so very strong and committed to the program. The teachers are teaching (the existing students) by example how to assimilate the new students into the classroom,” said resource teacher Amanda Arnold.
Arnold’s background comes from much larger venues. She attended St. Charles Borromeo School in Fort Wayne, started her teaching career in the Southwest Allen County Schools, then co-taught for years with Klinker at St. Vincent.
“I was very apprehensive about the small setting, but Cheryl (Klinker) insisted, ‘You just have to see this special place,’” noted Arnold.
She had to agree. The program was a perfect fit for St. Louis Academy.
Arnold could not begin to describe the sense of belonging and family atmosphere she immediately felt at St. Louis Academy. “The small setting is amazing and the classroom sizes are ideal. Everyone here is so aware of each other.”
In just a few short weeks since the first day of classes, Arnold has seen firsthand the impact the program is making.
“I love watching the interaction on recess,” Arnold said. “It is so heartwarming to see the older children including the younger children in games and activities. And all of the students are so accepting of the special needs students.”
Klinker echoed Arnold’s observation. “I am thrilled with how the integration process has started off. Our current students are learning compassion and understanding for the disabled, while our special needs families are attesting to immediate changes in their students’ behaviors at home. During our transition conferences, the parents are continually telling me what a difference in their children’s lives being enveloped in this special community is making,” she said.
Klinker continued, “This is a win-win situation. The program has created a new draw for enrollment at St. Louis Academy while developing a protocol that can be copied and used in the most efficient manner possible so other parishes will jump on board, and the concept will continue to grow across the diocese.”
Mary Glowaski, Secretariat for Evangelization and Special Ministries, under which disabilities falls, told Today’s Catholic last spring, “Serving the disabled in the diocese isn’t an option. It’s a challenge and a privilege.”
Glowaski has confidence in the new program and added, “I believe God is blessing this endeavor. As a diocese we need the gifts, talents and faithfulness of the disabled.” Summarizing the new role of his parish gem, Father Colchin, pastor, concluded, “This is an extraordinary opportunity. We believe it is our calling and are committed to provide a Christ-centered Catholic education for all.”
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