St. John’s integrates special needs as diocese works toward future programs



CHARLESTON — While schools are daily facing the challenges of mainstreaming children, new obstacles continue to arise. St. John’s in North Charleston is meeting the challenges head on — as a community, which is not unlike most projects they take on.

For more than a year now, a task force in the Diocese of Charleston has been studying the needs of children with varying special circumstances. From attention deficit disorder to varying speech problems to Down syndrome, there are dozens of aspiring minds that need help to receive the best education possible in our Catholic schools.

The Task Force on Religious Formation and Education of Children with Special Needs in our Parishes and Schools has been meeting quarterly since the summer of 1999. Made up of parents, teachers, parishioners, pastors and principals, the task force has worked to create a set of recommendations which they hope to have completed by this summer. They are addressing the future for special needs children in diocesan schools.

Children like Westcott White, who started at St. John’s in the fall, will benefit from the task force’s recommendations. In his first year, the students, faculty and parents have grown with him and are learning as they go to meet his needs.

He is a bright 6-year-old with Down syndrome. His underdeveloped speech causes him to use sign language, a language he is sharing with his four-year-old kindergarten classmates.

His mother, Tina White, said she and her husband decided to send Westcott to St. John’s because of its small class size, which would allow for more individual attention. In a class of 10, all the students are able to receive individual attention from teacher Kitty Erickson.

“It takes him maybe twice as long to get a concept, but through that process everyone benefits,” said Erickson. She explained that having to call for attention more frequently helps other students to focus on the task at hand.

“It’s Catholic mainstreaming. Because we’re small, there’s more opportunity to provide individual attention and focus on individual needs,” said the kindergarten teacher.

Westcott’s mother said that keeping Westcott at his former public school wouldn’t have achieved their desired result for their son. Mainstreaming at the public school would have put Westcott together with other students at lunch or recess. She was looking for more.

Carole Anne White, principal and aunt and godmother to Westcott, said that while the North Charleston school is not specifically a special needs school, they do welcome children with special needs.

She said they have found that any accommodations that have been made benefit the class as a whole. She said that adding more structure and organization to a classroom to benefit a child with ADD, also serves to help the teacher and students alike.

“(Westcott’s) parents wanted him to be treated as other children and for as much to be expected from him as can be,” said White.

Signs in the classroom help Erickson communicate with Westcott, although she is also learning to communicate with him through sign language.

While Westcott hears well and can form some words, he has created his own sign language mixed in with American Sign Language. “It makes perfect sense,” said his mother, as Westcott is pointing at his mother then putting his hand to his rearend — he wants his mother to push him on the swing.

In a twist of last minute circumstances at the beginning of the school year, White now teaches third grade at St. John’s.

Erickson on occasion has scooted across the hall to ask White what a sign means, but she said that the transition to having Westcott in her class has been easy.

“I have to make sure that I’m clear and that he’s focused,” said Erickson.

While the St. John’s community has made a successful go at mainstreaming special needs children, there is always more to learn.

Erickson said that having professional advice would be helpful. Her own daughter has ADD, so she knows the field of special needs is always growing. She enlisted the help of her daughter’s doctor, who agreed to do an in-service for teachers and even asked if he could do one for parents.

The St. John’s community is lucky to find volunteers in parents and local doctors, but a steady program of ongoing research and advice would be welcomed.

Principal White said that teachers need training so that they have the confidence to believe that they can work with special needs children and make a difference.

She said, “The more we know, the more we know we don’t need that much.”

Some resources are needed, however, like signs for the kindergarten class. They have the tools, all they need is the manpower, according to Erickson.

She said they have a book with symbols, but the symbols need to be blown up and drawn — a time-consuming activity.

Westcott goes to therapy outside of school, including therapeutic horseback riding, a half hour of speech therapy and an hour of occupational therapy every week. In public school, these therapeutic activities would be made available, but mainstreaming would carry a different outcome.

At St. John’s the students see Westcott as their peer. In the beginning, they reacted in an overprotective manner toward Westcott. It was easy because the 6-year-old is lovable and “knows no strangers,” said the principal. But after paring down their overprotectiveness, the students share in his laughter, are learning sign language, and see him as their peer learning his ABCs.