Do Kids with Down Syndrome Deserve a Catholic Education? The Church and These 3 Schools Say "Yes"
In observance of World Down Syndrome Day, let's celebrate the good and holy work of three Catholic schools that admit children with disabilities—not begrudgingly, but as a core part of their mission as an extension of the Catholic Church. These schools have created beautiful Catholic communities rooted in the saving truth of Christ’s love for humanity.
March 21 is World Down Syndrome Day, a global awareness day recognizing the rights and dignity of people with Down syndrome.
Down syndrome is a naturally occurring condition caused by the presence of an extra copy of the 21st chromosome at conception. In the United States, one in 772 babies is born with Down syndrome. That figure is artificially low. 67% of pregnant women who receive a positive test for Down syndrome abort their babies. (In Iceland, it’s nearly 100%, Denmark 98%, France 77%.)
Babies with Down syndrome are unique individuals, although they share some common characteristics, including an upward slant to the eyes, lower muscle tone, smaller stature, an increased incidence of certain medical conditions, and varying degrees of intellectual and developmental disabilities.
They are just as human as babies without an extra chromosome.
To put it another way, they are just as much made in the image and likeness of their Creator as other human beings, and for the same purpose: to know, love, and serve God in this world and the next.
Their path is different. But that is true of all human beings.
And their participation in the Catholic Church—the Mystical Body of Christ—is different too. But Catholics with Down syndrome are just as much a part of the Church as Catholics without Down syndrome.
As children, they are entitled to the Sacraments of Christian Initiation. They are also entitled to a Catholic education—not just in their home, but also in Catholic schools.
In The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schools, Archbishop J. Michael Miller instructed that Catholic schools—which he described as “an indispensable instrument in carrying out the Church's mission”—should complement “the irreplaceable role of parents in ensuring the education of their children” and “be available to all.”
This is a message the Holy See’s Congregation for Catholic Education affirmed last spring in The Identity of the Catholic School for a Culture of Dialogue. That document reveals that “[a] distinctive feature of [a Catholic school’s] ecclesial nature is that it is a school for all, especially the weakest,“ noting that educational institutions have developed “curricula geared to the skills of persons with disabilities” in fulfillment of that mission.
Despite the clarity of the Holy’s See’s teaching, many Catholic schools are not “schools for all” when it comes to serving kids with special needs, nor do they plan to be. It is partly a matter of resources, but more a matter of priority. While it’s true that it’s more expensive to educate children with special needs than it is to turn them away, it’s also true that schools can find the money for anything that they consider to be important enough.
Sadly, many Catholic parents have become accustomed to hearing, “I’m sorry, but we don’t have the resources to accommodate your child,” and then being advised to utilize the “superior” resources offered by the “free” public schools. The enthusiastic endorsement of secular services often adds insult to injury, as it seems to imply that kids with disabilities don’t really need or deserve a Catholic education.
But some Catholic schools do welcome children with disabilities—and not begrudgingly, but as a core part of their mission as an extension of the Catholic Church. These schools have created beautiful Catholic communities rooted in the saving truth of Christ’s love for humanity.
In observance of World Down Syndrome Day, let's celebrate the good and holy work of three Catholic schools that are leading the way in this critical area.
Immaculata Classical Academy (Louisville, Kentucky)
Founded in 2010 to meet the “great need for high quality Catholic education that could serve typical children and children with special needs alike,” Immaculata is a PK-12 independent Catholic school that is officially recognized by the Archdiocese of Louisville. The school utilizes a classical liberal arts curriculum to provide an “unapologetically” Catholic education “for the whole family.”
The school accepts children with various special needs but places a special emphasis on Down syndrome because “these children in particular are being targeted in the womb through pre-natal diagnoses.” The school’s leadership explains:
We want parents to feel that they have a great educational option for their children and to encourage them, through our acceptance and appreciation of these children at Immaculata, to say yes to the great joy and adventure of raising a child with Down Syndrome!
The school created the preschool program with children with Down syndrome in mind because it enables families to maximize the full developmental potential of the critical learning years which are so often neglected for children with Down syndrome.
The goal for the makeup of K-12 classrooms is to reflect natural proportion guidelines. Accordingly, special needs children represent approximately 15% of the total student body (generally 1-2 children in each classroom). The formula benefits all students. See this delightful explanation which can be found on the school's website:
This arrangement does not detract from our rigorous classical curriculum—on the contrary, it enhances it! Integration benefits both typically and specially-developing children, who would in all likelihood be otherwise deprived of the opportunity to interact with each other.
We find that our philosophy of inclusion perfectly complements the goals of a truly classical education, whose end is the development not only of the intellect but the entire human person.
Shelley Lampe has served as Immaculata’s lower school academic needs coordinator for 10 years. Her daughter, Angela, has Down syndrome. Angela has been a student at Immaculata since she was in kindergarten. Now she is a happy, well-adjusted ninth grader who loves to read.
“All of our students with Down syndrome can read and some read above grade level,” Lampe says. She notes that it takes hard work and discipline to teach reading skills to children with intellectual disabilities, but it is possible for all children with Down syndrome to learn to read and it uniquely enriches their lives.
She notes that some educators and even some parents give up on trying to teach children with Down syndrome how to read, or they stop at a certain level instead of pushing them to continue to improve.
That doesn’t happen at Immaculata, in part because the community has learned what these children are capable of over the last 13 years, and in part because, as Lampe says, “our school was literally founded on the commitment to have children with Down syndrome be a part of our community.”
Lampe says the school’s emphasis on serving families with Down syndrome is one of people’s favorite parts of the school, even though the majority of families don’t have a child with Down syndrome. “It’s one of the most tangible ways we live our Catholicism every day,” she explains.
She says her school’s approach teaches the love of Christ better than any lesson out of a textbook could:
It’s beautiful to see how patient and considerate our students are with classmates who have special needs. They see them as peers, not ‘that kid with Down syndrome or that kid in a wheelchair.’ Part of that is because our goal for every single student is to make them saints and to help them be good citizens and good people for the love of God.
Saint John Paul the Great Catholic High School (Potomac Shores, Virginia)
Founded in 2008 in the Dominican tradition of prayer, study, community, and service, Saint John Paul the Great is a high school of the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, with the nation's first four-year bioethics curriculum. The flagship Bioethics Curriculum© is a required program rooted in philosophy, science, and ethics that prepares students to encounter the serious medical and ethical issues of the 21st Century. The sanctity of human life is one of the key issues explored in the curriculum and reinforced through the day-to-day culture of the school.
Since opening its doors 15 years ago, Saint John Paul the Great has been proactive in welcoming children with Down syndrome and other disabilities. Through its Options Program, it offers a highly individualized education for students who need modifications to access the general curriculum.
The words of Saint John Paul II inspire the school’s approach to students with special needs:
If the disadvantaged child lives in a welcoming and open environment, he does not feel alone but in the heart of the community, and can thus learn that life is always worth living.
The goals of the program are two-fold:
For each student to be as fully integrated as possible into the total life of the school community.
To inspire the school community to increase acceptance of people with disabilities and promote respect for human life by helping all to more fully realize the value and gifts inherent in each of God’s children.
Sarah Gardner is Saint John Paul the Great's director of special services. She says it’s a tremendous blessing for students with special needs to be “truly” included in the social and sacramental life of the school. One way this happens is through the school’s Peer Mentor program which gives members of the student body the opportunity to interact with Options students in a spirit of love and friendship. She explains:
It's beautiful to watch true friendships form. I hear from several graduates each year who have chosen to go into special education or a related field due to their experiences at John Paul working with their classmates in the Options Program.
Catholics with special needs have a strong ally in Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington. His goal is to help every school and parish in the Arlington diocese offer special education and inclusion programs.
He is making significant progress towards this goal. In 2000, St. Paul VI High School in Chantilly, Virginia, became the first Arlington diocesan school to establish an initiative to admit children with disabilities including Down syndrome. Today, nearly half of the 41 diocesan schools have such an initiative.
Holy Family Academy (Manassas, Virginia)
Founded in 1993 by Catholic parents, Holy Family Academy is a K-12 independent school dedicated to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. The school’s mission is to assist parents by training children rigorously in the liberal arts, immersing them in the classic texts of the Western canon, and preparing them to live as committed adult Catholics with God at the center of their lives.
Holy Family Academy immerses students in a culture and curriculum that is thoroughly Catholic and includes a commitment to defending the sanctity of all human life. Classes in theology, philosophy, science, logic, and other disciplines reinforce truths about the dignity of the human person made in the image and likeness of God.
At Holy Family Academy, the month of January is dedicated to pro-life advocacy which is expressed in prayer for an end to legalized abortion at daily Mass, a pro-life essay contest where winners read their reports in front of the whole school, and a pro-life poster contest where students carry their artistic creations at the annual March for Life in Washington, DC. and/or Virginia (school is closed or an excused day off on these days).
The school has a special program for children with Down syndrome that contributes to its life-affirming culture. Named for St. Anne, the program admits children ages 8 to 18 who meet once a week on Fridays and are homeschooled the rest of the week. Students utilize a curriculum called Simply Classical, which is provided by Memoria Press and is specially designed for children with special needs.
The school’s leadership explains the program’s connection to Our Lady and her mother:
In raising the Virgin Mary as a child, St. Anne had the duty of caring for a child with a special kind of innocence. Children with Down Syndrome also have a special kind of innocence and we hope St. Anne will care for our students and the program in the same way that she cared for Our Lady.
Goals for the program include:
To provide Catechism and an opportunity for spiritual development (daily Mass and prayer) in a group setting
To provide opportunities for fellowship and friendship with the student body
To grow our service to children with Down syndrome as the Lord wills
The St. Anne’s children are very much a part of the Holy Family Academy community. They participate in Mass and other school-wide events—including All Saints Day, the Christmas pageant, the St. Joseph/St. Patrick pageant, and upper school dances—with the rest of the school community.
Headmaster Mo Woltering says children with Down syndrome have a deep capacity for friendship. “When you see them together, you might not be able to put it into words, but you can tell it is there,” he says. “The St. Anne's Program provides an opportunity and an environment for those homeschooled students to have those friendships.”
It’s not just the children in the program who benefit. He explains:
The St. Anne's Program benefits the rest of the school in a very simple way. The smiles on the faces of the Down Syndrome students are contagious. They bring out the best in everyone.
"Beautiful and Transformative Things are Happening"
Immaculata Classical Academy, Saint John Paul the Great Catholic High School, and Holy Family Academy have more in common than their accommodation of special needs children. They are all faithfully Catholic schools that seek to cultivate wisdom and other virtues in the students entrusted to their care.
And they are thriving. Not in spite of their efforts to be a “school for all,” but because of them.
Dr. Joseph Vorbach, superintendent for the Arlington diocese, says that none of the 18 schools that accepts children with Down syndrome and other disabilities has suffered because of it.
“In fact, a lot of beautiful and transformative things are happening in these schools,” he says. “We see growing empathy rooted in the reality that we all learn differently, strong and supportive peer relationships, and students who resolve to enter the field of special education because of their experiences as Peer Mentors.”
He notes that the first two special education teachers hired by Bishop O’Connell High School when it started offering expanded services were graduates of Saint Paul VI High School who were drawn to their vocation by their experiences as Peer Mentors in the PVI Options Program.
Diane Elliott, assistant superintendent for the Arlington diocese, says that the positive experiences of schools she works with are helping to break down barriers at other schools.
“Our goal,” she says, “is to meet the needs of parents who want a Christ-centered education for their special needs children, so all their children can attend the same school and learn and grow in faith together.”
“We’re getting there,” she says. “We have to do more to educate principals, teachers, and parents about what is possible, but God is sending the Holy Spirit to make this happen.”
Kimberly Begg is editor of Catholic School Playbook and director of programs and general counsel of the Ortner Family Foundation. She is the author of Unbreakable: Saints Who Inspired Saints to Moral Courage (TAN Books).