Partnership with Easter Seals led to Perfect Wings taking flight in archdiocese

Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas were recognized in a June 2016 study published by the Center for Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University for being more inclusive of students with special needs than other Midwestern and national parishes.

This report, called “Meeting the Needs of Those with Disabilities in the Church: A Profile of Parishes in the Archdiocese of Kansas City and How They Accommodate People with Disabilities,” was commissioned by the archdiocese as part of a national study conducted by the center. The purpose of the national study was to determine how parishes ministered to individuals with special needs.

The archdiocese asked for its parishes to be included and an individual report provided. Although the focus of the study was parish ministry, one of the major findings involved Catholic schools.

The report stated: “Of those Catholic schools associated with a parish, all of them say the school includes children with disabilities. Nine in ten (88 percent) say the school has support staff to help students with disabilities and eight in ten (84 percent) say the school’s budget includes resources related to accommodating children with disabilities.

“Archdiocesan parishes are 17 percent more likely than other Midwestern and 22 percent [more likely than] national parishes to include salaries and resources related to accommodating students with disabilities in the budget.”

In addition, “Eight in ten Catholic schools (79 percent) associated with the responding parishes make accommodations for parents with disabilities.”

According to Kathy O’Hara, superintendent of Catholic schools for the archdiocese, these findings are the result of more than 20 years of intentional effort.

“When I came to the archdiocese in 1998,” she said, “my predecessor, Blake Mulvany, had already commissioned a task force to study how Catholic schools were including students with special needs and to make recommendations regarding how to improve schools’ inclusion efforts.”

According to O’Hara, shortly after that, Mulvany was approached by Karen Kroh, who at the time worked for the Easter Seals organization. Easter Seals was interested in partnering with Catholic schools to assist them in serving students with special needs.

The partnership began with Kroh conducting a comprehensive needs analysis and developing a program plan based on the identified needs. As a result, the Perfect Wings program was born. There are four major components of the Perfect Wings program, which is coordinated by Kroh, who now works for the archdiocese.

These components include: providing professional development programs for teachers; serving as a liaison between Catholic schools in the archdiocese and the 29 different public school districts in which the Catholic schools are located; conducting classroom observations of students in order to assist teachers in better meeting the needs of specific children; and participating in conferences with parents and school staffs to ensure the best plans are in place for a given child.

Kroh travels to all 42 Catholic schools in the archdiocese and provides approximately 40-50 professional development workshops annually for teachers, 20 meetings with public school districts, and 60 classroom observations and parent meetings.

“One of the things I love about what I am blessed to do is seeing how much our school leaders and teachers care about students,” said Kroh. “Their eagerness to learn new strategies for helping students inspires and motivates me.”

Currently, Catholic schools in the archdiocese serve more than 1,000 students with special needs — including 571 with diagnosed disabilities such as autism spectrum disorders, Down syndrome, Attention Deficit Disorder, cognitive disabilities, and physical disabilities — as well as 489 identified English language learners.

Lynda Higgins, principal of Resurrection Catholic School at the Cathedral in Kansas City, Kansas, said, “Because of the Perfect Wings program, we are better able to serve our students with special needs because I know I can rely on Karen for keeping up to date with the current research and best practice.”

Kroh, however, gives credit to the schools.

“The results of the CARA study are due to the hard work of principals, teachers, parents, and students in our schools,” she said. “While we have room to do even more, I am so pleased with how far we have come in serving students with special needs in our schools.”

About the author

The Leaven

The Leaven is the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

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