In a classroom one recent weekday at St. Benilde Catholic School in Metairie, teacher Jennifer Kelly kept a group of children's eyes trained on her as she read aloud questions on an English worksheet.
A few feet away, a fourth-grade girl read with another teacher’s help, while a third-grade boy stood on a trampoline and finished his work on a laptop.
The bell sounded, and the children got up and switched stations.
Such scenes might be common at other schools where some students need extra help. But they're new at St. Benilde, one of the first Catholic schools in the New Orleans area to embrace a shift in thinking when it comes to educating students with learning difficulties.
Teachers have “moved away from excuses like ‘Oh, that kid’s lazy,’ or things like that, to ‘This is what I think this child needs that I can’t provide,’ ” St. Benilde Principal Matt Downey said.
Those conversations, in turn, drove Downey to hire the staff and buy the materials the children needed to excel.
As a result, St. Benilde is a flagship of the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ fledgling initiative for students struggling with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia and similar problems.
While St. Michael’s Special School and Holy Rosary Academy and High School in New Orleans — the two schools in the eight-parish New Orleans archdiocese designed specifically for special-needs students — have been open for decades, the new program is aimed at parents who want their children educated in a traditional school setting.
It comes amid declining Catholic school enrollment sparked in part by increased competition from improving public schools, particularly in Jefferson and St. Tammany parishes, which have long had an array of services for special-needs students.
New Orleans’ public schools had similar offerings before Hurricane Katrina, but the independent charter schools that have dominated the city since the storm have left gaps.
Catholic school officials see the program as a way to correct a wrong. For years, families “felt let down” by the church, as traditional Catholic schools turned away the very students with special needs they should have felt led to help, Archbishop Gregory Aymond said in a statement announcing the program last year.
Catholic schools Superintendent Jan Lancaster echoed that in a recent interview: “The thought was, ‘This is the curriculum. If the child can’t fit into the curriculum, we get them help outside of it.’ Now, what we’re doing is looking at how the curriculum can fit the child.”
Achieving that goal required financial investments. Whereas schools previously might have had “resource rooms” where students who were struggling could receive extra help, St. Benilde has now hired a special education teacher to put in that room. That’s Kelly, who doubles as the program’s director.
It also took cooperation. Now, even St. Benilde teachers without special-education certifications are getting on board, giving extra accommodations to struggling children when they return to regular classrooms.
That could mean affixing rubber bands to the desk of a child who has ADHD, to provide something extra for his hands to do during a lesson, admissions director Shanon Beyerback said. Other children get rolling chairs, or high desks so they may stand up while working.
At Metairie's Our Lady of Divine Providence, another school that has long worked to educate students of varying ability, extra help is also given. But much of the work, again, is done in regular classrooms.
“I do not call notice to a child that has a different learning style,” said Principal Elvina DiBartolo, who this year has a student with alexia, a disorder that prevents the child from understanding written words. “I know that this happens in some schools, but we make it a point to not label them.”
St. Angela Merici in Metairie has a similar program, and St. Paul’s in Covington plans to start a smaller one next year, Lancaster said.
Tuition-paying parents sometimes take on the extra costs of the initiative. While students in DiBartolo’s program pay the same as do traditional learners, a little less than $5,000 a year, the program at St. Benilde carries an additional $500 fee if a child needs math, English or reading help.
The archdiocese has a general scholarship program to aid families who need help paying the bills.
Even with the added costs, the programs now in operation appear to have no trouble finding students. Slots are full for the exceptional learners class at St. Benilde. And that's largely because of the improvements shown by students now in that class.
Among them is Downey's son, Matthew, who has ADHD as well as dyslexia and dysgraphia, or reading and writing disorders.
“He was retained in first grade and stayed two years, basically stuck in the 10th percentile. But he had a literacy lab, and that got him to the 35th percentile. Recently, he tested in the 79th percentile,” Downey said.