More than a decade ago Brother Thomas Leto, then principal of Bishop Hendricken High School returned from a conference of Catholic educators excited about what was happening at Paul VI High School in Fairfax, Va. The school had integrated intellectually disabled students into the school.
Brother Leto visited Paul VI, returning to initiate a similar program at Hendricken. It’s been an unequivocal success in the opinion of faculty, students and the parents of students with intellectual disabilities.
“In all the years I’ve been here, it’s the very best program we’ve created,” says Hendricken President/Principal John Jackson. “It’s such a great blessing to our community.”
Brother Leto is expected to attend the tenth anniversary celebration of the program, believed to be the only one of its kind in a Catholic school in Rhode Island, June 5 at the Harbor Lights on Warwick Neck.
Two students were enrolled in the Options Program in 2008. Philip Murray, the first graduate, went on to graduate from the Threshold Program at Lesley University and is now a para-professional in the Somerville School system in Massachusetts. His mother, Martha Murray, heads the Hendricken development office.
“I will never be able to share my gratitude to this program, it has changed the culture to this school,” she said.
“Our challenge now is where do they go,” she said of those completing the program.
The Hendricken program, directed by Natalie Kessimian, has two teachers, Vanessa Cardillo and Cara Fusco, and an enrollment of ten ID students ranging from freshmen to seniors. But the network of support and involvement is far greater than those numbers would suggest. More than 80 students have volunteered as peer mentors, assisting ID students to cope with school life from how to set up their locker and organize their notebooks to joining them on the basketball or volleyball court as members of a unified team.
“They really are the heart of the program. They don’t realize how much they bring to the program. They just do it, just like brothers,” said Kessimian.
What was happening around her Tuesday afternoon affirmed what she was saying. The action at Meadowbrook Bowling Lanes was in high gear. It was an end of the year event where both the ID students and their mentors were more intent on having a good time and celebrating each other’s successes than strikes and the score. Steve Baker was more focused on the game than most of his comrades. He stood at the end of the lane waiting for his turn.
“Two more,” he said without taking his eyes off the machine as it set up ten pins. When he was finally up, he put on a show, spinning before letting the ball fly with a bang to sail down the lane, knocking down six pins. It left him a split. He wasn’t happy despite Brian Schattle’s encouragement, “that’s good.”
Steve downed two more pins and Brian gave him a high five. Steve was happy.
Brian said choosing to be a peer mentor is the best decision he’s made.
“I’ve learned how to put myself in other people’s shoes,” he said, “and to care for a friend.”
Fusco, who has been with Options from the beginning, said the program has really developed. She said ID students are engaged in a “life skills-based program” that has some of the same courses such as English and math as other students. They also take history, theology science and a year of a foreign language. They have electives in the visual arts as well.
Fusco said the program aims to discover the hidden gifts of an ID student. She is excited describing how some students excel in different areas, describing one boy who became highly proficient in Spanish. Other areas she has found students to excel in include technology, the arts and sports.
“It’s discovered,” she said of these talents, “because their world opens up.”
The greatest impact, she sees, is on the school community that has become accepting and developed genuine friendships.
Jackson has seen a change in the ID students as well. He said as many come from smaller schools, they are initially fearful of the size of Hendricken. Some are confused and lost. But Jackson said those apprehensions quickly disappear as students reach out to them.
“They’re doing high fives, bump fists in the corridors,” he said. Because of the individualized instruction, Options tuition is higher than for the regular program. Jackson said the school offers tuition assistance.
Dylan Termel, who graduates first in his class this year, is a peer mentor. He was with his friends at the bowling alley Tuesday.
He said the program has developed a culture of brotherhood and solidarity.
And what has he learned from ID students?
“It’s their positive attitude in the face of adversity,” he said. “It’s inspiring.”