CHARLESTON — Bishop England High School is opening its classrooms to the Options program, which is designed to provide an inclusive education to students with special needs.
The decision to implement the program boiled down to one thing.
“We took a close look at our mission statement and it is something we had to do to fulfill our mission,” said David Held, school principal.
Arriving at that conclusion, however, was not simple and involved the perseverance of many parents and educators.
“People have been planting seeds for a long time,” said Cindi May, a psychology professor at the College of Charleston.
May credits Sister Julia Hutchison, superintendent of Catholic schools, with being a true visionary and providing the leadership necessary to bring the Options program to fruition.
But before Sister Julia was involved, May led the charge to include disabled children in a regular school setting. She was impelled on her crusade by her daughter, Grace, a triplet born with cerebral palsy.
May wanted her daughter to have the same opportunities as the rest of her children, and that meant an education in the Catholic school system.
Grace passed away recently from leukemia, but the mission lives on.
“As Catholics, if we really believe in the right to life, then we need to support that life,” May said. “It turns out kids with special needs are much more like typical kids than they are not like them.”
To further promote their goal of inclusive education, school leaders brought Norman Kunc and Emma Van der Klift to speak at Christ Our King/Stella Maris and Bishop England on March 27.
The husband-and-wife team are the creators of Axis Consultation & Training Ltd., which provides support to schools interested in the Options program.
Van der Klift said she speaks passionately about inclusive education because she has seen the outcome of segregated education.
She explains that a moderately handicapped child can come out of segregated education with no skills for the real world; no friends, no job opportunities, and little chance at social integration.
On the flip side, a severely handicapped student in an inclusive program can make friends and master the skills necessary for independent living.
Kunc is a perfect example of this dichotomy.
He was born with cerebral palsy, and attended segregated classes until the eighth grade, at which point he fought for — and won — the right to study in a regular school. He earned a bachelor’s degree in humanities, and a master’s in family therapy.
Kunc uses his intelligence and humor to underscore the point that inclusive education should be available not only to different races and genders, but to the disabled as well.
“We value some students more than others,” Kunc said. “We don’t like to admit this, but we do.”
He said educators will always do what is best for “gifted” students, but tend to think disabled students are not quite worth the effort. “We have to realize this is wrong,” he said.
Catholic schools in Charleston are taking steps to correct this perception with implementation of the Options program at Bishop England.
Held said they already have four applicants and will accept a total of six students for the ninth grade.
“What we anticipate is that within four years, we’ll have kids in all four of the grades,” he said.
Kunc cautions that acceptance and understanding will not happen overnight.
When classes begin at the high school, he said, students and teachers will see mostly the disability. But as they get to know the person, the disability will fade and the pupil will be seen the same way as everyone else; with likes, dislikes and their own set of oddities.
Held said he has great expectations for inclusive education, not only for the disabled students but also for the whole student body.