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Tonawanda, NY: Catholic high school adds special ed students

Apr 15, 2023, Buffalo (NY) News: Cardinal O'Hara to become rare Catholic high school to add special education students

Tonawanda, NY

Eighth grader Nick Stromecki has attended SS. Peter and Paul School in Hamburg since he was 4 years old.

His parents always wanted him to go to a Catholic high school, but there were no good options for a special education student – until now.

They are thrilled that Nick, who was born with Down syndrome, will be able to continue his faith-based education at Cardinal O'Hara High School.

Nick will be a pioneer student at Cardinal O'Hara next school year, when the school offers an inclusive program for students with intellectual and cognitive disabilities.

It will be the first Catholic high school to do so in Western New York. …

Individualized instruction will be offered in grade-level and small-group classes. Students also will be encouraged to participate in all student activities, Principal Joleen M. Dimitroff said.

Dimitroff, a former special education teacher and administrator in public schools, devised the program after she was hired last summer.

"There aren't any other programs in New York State at Catholic high schools for kids with intellectual disabilities," Dimitroff said.

She approached the National Catholic Board on Full Inclusion for advice and guidance, and visited schools with inclusion programs.

"We started to really have a clear vision of what we want to start here," Dimitroff said.

The school, which has 172 students, hired a special education teacher and aide. The teacher will help modify the curriculum for students so they learn at their own rate. The school also will have trained student peer mentors….

Most Catholic schools in the region have programs to help struggling students and some have special education teachers, but none on the scale that O'Hara plans, said Timothy D. Uhl, superintendent of Catholic schools in the Diocese of Buffalo.

"They're planting a flag and saying we’re going to serve the kids that are really difficult to serve in our traditional Catholic school model," he said.

When schools like Cardinal O'Hara opened, support for Catholic education was strong and schools were filled with students. Those who needed extra services had to go somewhere else, Uhl said….

The plan is for special education students at O'Hara to receive other services they need, such as occupational and speech therapy, from the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District.

Uhl said there are pockets of inclusion in Catholic dioceses around the country. One of them is in the Diocese of Arlington, Va.

One school there, Bishop O'Connell, will mentor Cardinal O'Hara.

Uhl hopes Cardinal O'Hara will spur other schools to create similar programs.

"There's no reason why this couldn't be tried," he said.

Sophomore Braelyn Tucciarone looks forward to becoming a peer mentor. She said she has a cousin being home-schooled because she has Down syndrome.

"I think it's great we're adding another opportunity that other schools don't have," she said. "It adds a different experience to my school day than what I would normally have."Letter: Trump’s latest troubles raise interesting questions


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