|Pam Eatman, above, talks with Joe Kniery in class with the Hand in Hand students at Pope John Paul II High School on Tuesday, August 9, 2016. Photos by Rick Musacchio|
In 2004, Pope John Paul II High School established the Hand in Hand Program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Hand in Hand students access a Catholic education with supplemental resources and supports, benefiting from a mix of one-on-one instruction, small class work and immersion in the general curriculum, while participating as full members of the school community.
A year from now, for the first time, the program will be offered at the elementary and middle school levels too, at St. Ann School.
“The program will provide these students – mainly with intellectual disabilities and or developmental delays – an opportunity to become part of the St. Ann community,” said St. Ann Principal Adelaide Nicholson. “It’s an opportunity for them to be included in the mainstream curriculum, as well as extra-curricular activities and social events.”
A model for K-12 Catholic education
This possibility presented itself at a gathering of diocesan principals, where JPII Headmaster Mike Deely mentioned that he was looking for a way to expand the Hand in Hand concept to the lower grades. The hope was that eventually the diocese would offer a supported program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities kindergarten through 12th grade.
Deely and Pam Eatman, the coordinator of JPII’s Hand in Hand program, were seeking a school eager to incorporate the Hand in Hand philosophy, and that was reasonably ready with infrastructure and resources. Nicholson enthusiastically stepped up to the plate.
“We have children with diverse learning abilities now,” Nicholson said. “We nurture those children so it’s a natural fit here.”
With the blessing of Dr. Therese Williams, Superintendent of Schools for the Diocese of Nashville, Bishop David Choby, and St. Ann Pastor Father Edwige Carre, the program will start in the fall of 2017.
|Trace Tignor, foreground right, and Ian Kolber listen during class.|
“We would love to have every private school offer services for students with disabilities, but at this point we’ve got a K-8 rallied and somebody who’s really passionate about it and already recruiting,” said Eatman. “So we thought we’d essentially create a pilot program that can be a Catholic model for kindergarten-12 education for kids with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”
Ultimately, JPII would like to spearhead a national consortium where other Catholic schools can call and consult with them about how they did it, who they pulled in, what the fiscal impact was, and what lessons were learned along the way. “Because ultimately,” said Eatman, “this should be something in every school.”
‘A win-win situation’
For St. Ann, the new offering – to be called the Hand in Hand Option Program – is still very much in the planning stages. However, Nicholson is working under the assumption that the program will be comprised of two students from the pre-kindergarten through 4th grade level, and two from the 5th to 8th grade level. A resource teacher will be hired to oversee the initiative, and the entire staff will be receiving extensive training from Vanderbilt University on how to successfully and meaningfully include children with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the St. Ann School experience.
Beyond providing staff and faculty with professional development, Nicholson has prioritized preparing current students and St. Ann families to ensure a smooth and positive transition. “This can become a win-win situation for all of us,” said Nicholson. “If we educate everyone and let them know exactly what to expect, everyone will benefit from this.”
Members of the community
Eatman has been in charge of JPII’s inclusion program for the last three years. From that perspective, she’s been able to see, firsthand, exactly how everyone benefits. She believes that the Hand in Hand students are privy to a quality of education and community support that they’re not going to get anywhere else.
|Adelaide Nicholson, principal at St. Ann School in Nashville, is excited about expanding the Hand in Hand Program from Pope John Paul II High School into elementary school. St. Ann is working with the high school this year, and plans to enroll special needs students next school year.|
“Our kids are seamless in the school,” said Eatman. “When they’re at lunch, and in the hallways and in their inclusion classes there’s really little differentiation between the Hand in Hand participants and the other students. They’re such an integral part of the community here, and many of our faculty would tell you that the best thing we do at JPII is the Hand in Hand program.
“There’s even more of an impact on the rest of the student body,” continued Eatman. “I think this gives them an opportunity to reach beyond themselves.”
As Director of Academic Supports, Eatman oversees all JPII students that learn differently; 10 percent of them have some kind of learning difficulty, due to autism, ADD or other “specific learning disabilities” which may impact a student’s ability to listen, speak, read, write, spell or do math. Eatman manages these students’ accommodations and facilitates their annual education planning meetings. She also runs the Knights Success Program, which provides supports for any students who struggle in the area of executive functioning and require assistance with organizational skills.
‘That’s just who we are here’
An impressive team has been assembled to advise Nicholson as she takes on this venture. Besides Eatman and Deely there are St. Ann parents; a representative from the Down Syndrome Association of Middle Tennessee; Elise McMillan of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center whose son, Will, was in the first JPII Hand in Hand class; Carolyn Baker, one of the founders of the JPII Hand in Hand program; as well as other stakeholders.
The four St. Ann students will be recruited from the community and the school will do a screening process with the incoming children to assess their needs, and to determine how best to include them.
It is unclear now how much time the Hand in Hand Option students will stay in their own classroom, or whether their resource teacher will accompany them into the general education classes. Those details, among many others, will be discussed and decided on leading up to the August 2017 start date.
“We want to mainstream these children as best as we possibly can,” Nicholson said. “Pope Francis’ mission is for everyone to be included, and that’s just who we are here.”