Immaculate Conception Catholic School Principal Allison Palfy observes student Isaiah Harris, who is part of the school's special education program, as he practices telling time. Photograph by Jessica L. Marsala.
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Empathy is only option at Augusta school with special education program

AUGUSTA--Of the many lessons that students at Immaculate Conception Catholic School in downtown Augusta learn, few are as conspicuously embodied as empathy.

 

 “They learn to accept differences. They learn not to segregate themselves out by the differences in them. This is what real life is supposed to be,” said Allison Palfy, principal of Immaculate Conception Catholic School (ICCS), giving as an example how in college or on the job, adults have to learn to get along with all of their coworkers, regardless of their strengths and weaknesses. “It gives me goosebumps every time I talk about it [the students’ empathy] to someone.”

 

 Such a lesson – rather life skill –  is especially important at ICCS, the only diocesan school with a dedicated special education program, which was created approximately two years ago using the example of existing programs in other dioceses such as Saint Louis and Philadelphia as a guide.

 

As part of the program, Palfy says that many of its 14 students – who have various conditions including autism, Down Syndrome and sensory processing disorder – are fully integrated into the general classroom according to their individual abilities and needs. 

 

 Even those students that attend all of their lessons in the self-contained special education classroom join their peers for lunch, recess and Mass, among other activities. 

Such a mindset of inclusivity is reinforced on a daily basis by Father Jacek Szuster, pastor of nearby Most Holy Trinity Church, as well as by the school’s mission: to develop  “Christ-like minds, hearts, and souls within the Catholic faith tradition by promoting academic excellence and service.” 

 

From the outset, faculty and staff also laid a foundation of respect and acceptance by encouraging the school’s existing students to be “heroes” to their newest members and take them under their wings. 

 

 “We don’t accept anything but that so therefore we don’t get anything but what we expect,” Palfy said. “The way the kids are treating each other you see Christ…that’s the way he meant it to be, that everybody is his child, everybody is loved by him and they all love each other here. The kids here in this building do not know that there are kids in our building with special needs: They just see them all as their friends. They want to support these kids so that they feel the same success that they feel.”

 

ICCS mom and school secretary Mary Katherine Gorlich remarked that her son Jamus and daughter Cora have both grown considerably, intellectually and socially, since coming to the school. 

 

Aside from the school’s small class sizes, which Palfy sees as vital in a special education program, Gorlich credits the teamwork of the faculty and administration and their desire to help students feel included.   

 

“The amount of social growth that has occurred here is kind of amazing because if our son didn’t know your name it’s not that he didn’t like you, it’s just because really that just meant nothing to him,” Gorlich said. She later explained that her son, who has autism, anxiety and sensory processing disorder, now participates in Junior Model U.N. and began, for the first time, to receive invitations for play dates and birthday parties.  Her daughter, who has dyslexia and hearing and speech impediments, now has the confidence to sing in front of the entire congregation at Mass. 

 

Palfy says that “the only thing that matters here” is to “do right by the student.” Therefore, each student, whether in special or general education, has his or her own individualized plan – which may or may not include college. 

 

Nicholas Mantlow, a middle school student, surmised that ICCS’ special education program is important because it sets higher standards for the students than those set at public school. 

 

“We never thought college would ever be a possibility for our son until this school. It wasn’t even in the realm of possibility,” Gorlich said. “He [her son, Jamus] has goals that public education basically told him he couldn’t do.”

 

With the upcoming addition of a sensory processing area and a Life Skill simulation lab – funded by a $12,000 grant awarded by Today’s Catholic Teacher magazine for Innovations in Catholic Education for Special Education – those students whose disabilities may make college unlikely can still learn skills such as cooking, filling out job applications and doing laundry that will allow them to function independently in society as adults.

 

Palfy said she hopes other schools in the diocese would, using ICCS as a model, implement a similar type of special education program. 

 

“It doesn’t stop with our school,” Palfy said. “I’d like to see one in every deanery in the Diocese of Savannah.” 

 

Jessica L. Marsala is assistant to the editor, Southern Cross.

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