At a recent Wednesday morning Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in Belle Chasse, a choir of middle school students gestured with their arms and fingers as they sang the Sanctus, translating the hymn into sign language.

As the congregation sang along, the students’ intricate gestures helped settle rows of otherwise fidgety feet and brought new visual stimulus to the sacramental celebration.

But the scene was also evidence of a broader goal: for the local Catholic school to educate kids who communicate through sign language because of learning disabilities that limit their speech.

“We’re trying to be as inclusive as possible,” said the school's principal, Kirsch Wilberg.

This year, Our Lady of Perpetual Help School has been piloting programming for students with moderate autism, anxiety disorders, dyslexia, attention deficit disorder and other conditions.

The expanded services are part of a push for Catholic schools across the New Orleans metropolitan area to better serve students with special needs.

The initiative took off in earnest last year after Archbishop Gregory Aymond heard from families who said they felt “let down” by Catholic schools' practice of turning away some of the most vulnerable children.

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The push comes as local public schools also have come under criticism for leaving gaps in such services, especially at some of New Orleans' independent charter schools.

Experts say the city's balkanized school system lacks a centralized bureaucracy to ensure that students with special needs are being properly served, and that some charter schools, left to their own devices, are trying to avoid enrolling such students because of the high cost of educating them.

In 2010, the Southern Poverty Law Center sued the Louisiana Department of Education, complaining of “well-documented barriers facing students with disabilities in New Orleans.” Two years ago, the first report from the independent monitor charged with overseeing the resulting consent agreement found that charter schools are still failing to meet some students’ needs.

Catholic schools have traditionally fallen short as well, according to William Van Ornum, a director of research for the American Mental Health Foundation.

Because of a federal law called the Individuals with Disabilities Act, children with special needs who attend parochial schools are entitled to some services, like speech therapy sessions, that are paid for by local education agencies. However, they aren’t entitled to the individualized education programs, or IEPs, that public schools must provide for kids who need specialized services.

In an article titled “The Long Road to Including Special Needs Education in Catholic Schools,” Van Ornum said that the church had only recently been inspired to expand programming because of a more liberal interpretation of a 1965 Vatican document on Christian education.

“For decades, it was all but impossible for parents to enroll their special-needs child in a Catholic school,” Van Ornum said, adding that the costs were "beyond the ability" of any private school system — especially Catholic schools, which are traditionally more affordable than other private schools.

And while that may be changing, the gains in special education programming are still precarious, he said, simply because the costs are “enormous.”

Fledgling programming

Recognizing the need for better options in the private sector, the local archdiocese years ago began applying for grants to create individualized special education programming in a handful of area Catholic schools , according to Dr. RaeNell Houston, the archdiocese's new superintendent of Catholic schools.

The money has gone to new classroom resources, full-time special education teachers and counselors, learning materials and a HiSET program, where students can earn a high-school-equivalent diploma.

The initiative dates to 2014, when the Office of Catholic Schools started spending more money on professional development for teachers. That year, officials put $25,000 toward training teachers on better instructing children who have dyslexia and dysgraphia, a learning disorder that affects writing.

Then, in 2015, another $100,000 was directed to research and evaluation so officials could narrow down where help was most needed, according to the archdiocesan newspaper, the Clarion Herald.

As a result, some schools have gotten assistance to help kids who aren’t in designated special-education programs, including St. Christopher and St. Francis Xavier schools in Metairie and Our Lady of the Lake in Mandeville.


And four schools got funding for special-education teachers who help students with learning disabilities by putting them in special programming, including classroom settings with one-on-one learning.

Those include the Pathways to Success program at Our Lady of Divine Providence in Metairie, which caters to gifted children as well as those with mild disabilities.

Nearby, at St. Benilde School, officials developed the “Exceptional Learners” program, aimed at helping kids on either end of the educational spectrum. There, three learning labs offer special programming for about 40 students who need help in language arts and math. The program also helps gifted students.

At St. Paul’s High School in Covington, five students participated in a specially designed curriculum.

The archdiocese’s newest program is the pilot at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, which began this year. The Hornets Exceptional Learning Program, or HELP, as it’s called, serves 14 students in second through fifth grades with mild or moderate learning disabilities.

Some kids there get pulled out of the classroom to work one-on-one with instructors for English and math, while students who struggle less have interventions but spend most of their time in traditional classrooms.

That’s the program that helps Katie Comeaux, a second-grader with high-functioning autism, who could be seen on a recent day learning simple addition and subtraction with her other classmates.

Comeaux’s family waited three years for the pilot special education program at Our Lady of Perpetual Help. She had attended the institution’s preschool program but had to leave after she was diagnosed with autism in kindergarten, according to Wilberg, the principal.

“We had to tell her we just couldn’t teach her anymore, because she’s autistic,” Wilberg said.

‘It’s personal’

This isn’t the New Orleans archdiocese's first foray into serving kids with special needs. Two local schools — St. Michael’s Special School and Holy Rosary Academy and High School — are designed specifically for children with learning disabilities, and they’ve been open for decades.

In addition, some other schools have long had “resource rooms” where struggling students could get extra help. But for years, the church failed to help parents who wanted their children with moderate learning disabilities to be taught in traditional school settings.

As a result, said Houston, the archdiocese superintendent, many families — including hers — felt shunned by the eight-parish New Orleans archdiocese.

Houston’s daughter, Raelynn, went to an Episcopal preschool until she was 3. But when Houston applied for a spot at her local Catholic school, she was rejected because her daughter had been diagnosed with Down syndrome.

Raelynn, who is now 11, attends the pilot program at Our Lady of Perpetual Help alongside Comeaux. But in the intervening years, she had to attend public school. Not only was the experience a poor fit for the family, but it caused Houston to question her faith, she said.

“When you feel like you have been excluded by the church community, it’s devastating,” Houston said. “It causes you to question everything you have ever believed in, and it makes you feel like the church is hypocritical.”

So when the first-year superintendent was tasked with expanding programming options for children like hers, she said she jumped at the opportunity.

“It’s personal,” she said. “And it’s a moral responsibility.”

Limited resources

While the church is taking steps toward greater inclusivity, students with severe disabilities are still turned away from most Catholic schools in New Orleans, Houston said, because the archdiocese simply doesn’t have the resources to educate them properly.

The schools are limited both by their facilities, which often have stairs or bathrooms that don’t comply with Americans with Disabilities Act standards, and by their financial resources.

The National Education Association has estimated that the average per-student cost of education is $7,552, but the average cost per special education student is $16,921.

Officials with Serving the Unique Needs of Students, however, have said that in some cases, costs can be as much as $200,000 per child if the student needs services like individual therapy, trained staff and specialized equipment or vans for transport.

Federal law requires public school districts to serve all students regardless of physical and mental disability, and in Louisiana, the state has a funding formula to cover some of a school's extra costs.

Last year, for instance, schools got $1,499 extra for each student with a mild disability, and up to $22,486 more for those requiring the most intervention.

The Orleans Parish School Board also has the Citywide Exceptional Needs Fund, which helps students with individualized education plans whose services aren’t adequately funded through the state. But that falls short, too. The district awarded just $1.3 million this year, even though schools requested nearly $10 million, according to The Lens.

In Catholic schools, paying for special education is even more challenging, Houston said, because the programs don’t get special allotments from the state. Instead, the archdiocese got about $450,000 in grant funding this year to support the schools’ fledgling programs.

But since the costs are so much greater, some of the schools that take in special-needs kids charge higher tuition to help fill the gap.

While special-needs students in the Our Lady of Divine Providence program pay the same as traditional learners — a little less than $5,000 a year — the program at St. Benilde can cost up to $6,000 extra, for total tuition of about $13,000.

Even so, there are still gaps. At St. Michael’s, for instance, the difference between tuition and the cost of educating a child comes to nearly $9,000 per student. To cover it, Houston said, the church relies on “generous benefactors.”

And there still isn’t enough money to handle large numbers of students. This year, Houston said, she had to turn away several families because schools had already reached their caps for special-education enrollment.

“My dream is that one day, any family, regardless of ability or disability, who wants a Catholic education will have a place,” the superintendent said. “But we don’t yet know what that looks like.”

Follow Della Hasselle on Twitter, @dellahasselle.