Catholic schools are enrolling more special-needs students through scholarship voucher programs

'Special needs in a faith environment'

GREEN TOWNSHIP, Ohio -- Christina Sillies wanted her seventh child, Colton, to follow his six older siblings' path to their parish school.

Colton has Down syndrome. He went to St. James in White Oak last year using a state voucher program, but Sillies said the K-8 Catholic school decided it couldn't continue to meet her son's needs.

Sillies explored their local public school, but she wanted to provide her youngest child with the same faith-based education that she desired for her older children.

She called dozens of Catholic elementary schools and ended up at St. William in West Price Hill, where Colton is currently in a self-contained classroom.

"Only a handful of schools would even entertain taking on a child with Down syndrome," Sillies said. "The difference with St. William is their willingness to do what it takes."

Colton is able to attend St. William thanks to the Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship, an Ohio voucher program launched in 2012 that offers funds for students with learning disabilities or special needs to use toward tuition and special services at private or parochial schools instead of their public school.

And while Catholic schools aren't the only providers for the scholarship, more and more of them are adding services and accepting students with varying degrees of disability or learning differences.

How special-needs scholarships work

To use the Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship -- which Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos mentioned at her confirmation hearing -- a school must meet state guidelines as a provider and has to agree to accept the student during an application process.

A second scholarship program, a autism scholarship implemented in 2005, also is accepted at some local Catholic schools for students on the autism spectrum. Still, the Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship is used much more frequently and covers a broader range of needs, including everything from a speech problem to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder to hearing impairment.

For parents who want a Catholic education for their child with special needs, the scholarship can help fund services the student may need.

Many non-Catholic private schools, tutors and programs also are listed as providers for the Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship and autism scholarships on the Ohio Department of Education website.

Students with an identified disability and an individualized education plan from their public school can apply for the scholarship; however, not all students attend a public school before moving to a private school.

About half the 388 scholarship students living in the Cincinnati Public Schools district have never enrolled at a CPS school -- but the district is still responsible for evaluating and creating the individualized education plan, said Janet Walsh, CPS spokesperson.

The amount of the scholarship depends on the disability and ranges from $7,500 up to $27,000 for a more severe disability. Any services that extend beyond the scholarship funds are the responsibility of the parents.

This school year, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati has 851 students using the Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship -- with almost half at secondary schools and the other half at elementary schools. Another 55 students are using the autism scholarship, according to Mary Ann Bernier, director of government programs for archdiocesan schools.

The Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship numbers have increased by about 100 students each year since 2014, Bernier said.

"The greatest advantage for our families is that they can educate a child with special needs in a faith environment," she said. "That's why we have been pleased to be able to expand these programs so we can serve more students."

Can a child go to any private school?

There are 30 Cincinnati-area Catholic schools that are Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship providers. Ten Catholic schools within the Cincinnati area are listed as providers of the autism scholarship program.

But, like the Sillies family found out, schools offer varying levels of service; not every school will be equipped to handle every student. Many Catholic schools are just beginning to adapt their schools to meet the needs of special-education students -- and many don't offer a full gamut of services for more severe disabilities.

Parents work directly with the school to determine what services the school can offer. The school or parents might determine whether the school can handle that student's needs -- and a school can choose not to enroll a child.

That's different than a public school, which is bound by a federal law -- the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act -- to provide all students with a free and appropriate public education. And a public school must meet all the services listed in the individualized education plan.

In the private school setting, the student's individualized education plan is used to guide the services, but there is no legal requirement that all of the services listed in the individualized education plan be met.

What parochial schools are saying

St. William has one of the most expansive programs for special needs students -- especially for those on the autism spectrum -- within the realm of parochial schools offering services under the two state programs.

Thirty-eight students out of 200 enrolled at St. William are using the scholarships. Eighteen students this year use the autism scholarship, and 20 use the Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship.

"Most everyone else (in the Catholic schools) has more of a mainstream model, so they can only take mainstream kids or kids who can be partially mainstreamed," said Jarrod Zeiser, St. William's principal. "We have a model here that we have both. We are somewhat unique in that we have the self-contained classroom setting in addition to the mainstream model."

Half of St. William's students remain in one of four self-contained classrooms, with other students with special needs and a teaching team of specialists. The other half are integrated into the general student population. The goal, Zeiser said, is to have every student eventually join the rest of the school in a mainstream environment, but they offer both options for flexibility.

To ensure that St. William is a good fit for the student -- and the school can meet the student's needs on their individualized education plan -- Zeiser said there is an extensive interview and application process with the family before the child is admitted.

In rare cases, the school decides it can't meet the needs of that child, and sometimes the family decides it isn't the right fit. The school can accommodate most students who apply.

St. Ignatius in Monfort Heights, which has 1,045 students in its K-8 building, has offered services for students with varying levels of special needs for a long time, even before the scholarship programs were around. The school has 82 students using the Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship and three or four on the autism scholarship.

The difference now is that the school can focus fundraising efforts on other needs, instead of worrying how they will fund the special services each year, said Tim Reilly, St. Ignatius principal.

"Twenty years ago, we had three or four intervention specialists; now we have 14," Reilly said. "The degree of service we can now offer (with the scholarships) is remarkable."

The level of disability a Catholic school -- or most other private schools -- can manage depends widely on the individual school.

St. Ignatius and St. William both said they have turned students away in a few cases, if educators felt they couldn't meet the needs of that student.

St. James is in its third year accepting the Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship. Most students using the scholarship there are high-functioning and may be using the scholarship for speech and language services or because of a learning disability.

"The Jon Peterson Special Needs Scholarship has opened up a lot of opportunities for us to serve students we previously would not have been able to serve, and it is a great blessing to be able to do that," said Jeff Fulmer, St. James' principal. "Unfortunately, in some cases a child's needs are greater than what we can serve, and a lot of that is just not having the resources to do that. I don't want to put a kid in a position where they aren't going to be successful and they aren't going to get what they need."

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