My kids’ experience with special education at Catholic school

Both my kids were diagnosed with learning and thinking differences at an early age. Both get special education services. But neither is at public school.

When my daughter was in preschool, we chose to send her to our Catholic parish school. (It covers pre-K through eighth grade.) We love the close-knit community, the faith-based learning style, and the small classroom size. Attending weekly mass on Sundays also gives our family a sense of purpose and unity with our parish and school.

A few months after my daughter started kindergarten, the teacher noticed that she had trouble with reading and with finishing tasks. My daughter wasn’t able to complete her classwork on time and had a difficultly understanding math.

The teacher encouraged us to have our daughter evaluated for learning and thinking differences. We didn’t act right away. But by first grade, we decided to look into it.

We were doubly fortunate. Not only did we have a sharp teacher who had spotted the early signs, but the school’s principal had . When we mentioned our concerns, the principal was passionate about helping us.

Soon, an evaluation team from the local public school district visited our school to evaluate my daughter. Testing showed that she had a . (Later, we would learn she has  and , as well as issues with motor skills and muscle development.)

The evaluation team said my daughter could get special education services if we enrolled her in the local public school. But, they added, if we wanted to keep her in the Catholic school, she was still eligible for some services.

We wanted to stay at the Catholic school. So starting in second grade, my daughter was given what’s called an Individual Service Plan (or services plan, or ISP).

The plan provided her , , and special instruction. My daughter was pulled out of her regular class to a resource room at the Catholic school where an outside professional came in to give her these services. Twice a week, a special education teacher from the public school also came to her regular class.

This was all free — although to help address her needs, we eventually paid for private speech and occupational therapy after school.

At first, I honestly didn’t know much about how this worked. But over time, I learned that public schools have a Child Find obligation to find and serve kids who need special education, even kids in private schools. This comes from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which protects the rights of students with disabilities.

I also learned that we were very lucky. In my experience, many schools with a missionary or faith-based focus aren’t set up to support special education services. And to me, it seems like they’re not always interested in working with families to get these services.

Things may be changing. A few years ago, I met a parent from Texas whose kids were at a parochial school. Like my kids, they had learning and thinking differences and got special education services.

Also, this year for ninth grade, my daughter applied and was accepted at an all-girls Catholic high school in another town. That school also worked with us to get my daughter services, though there were a few bumps. And my son is now at our parish school with his own services plan.

Are the special education services perfect at our school? I’m sorry to say, no.

Even though the administration has been supportive, some of the teachers at the school are very traditional. They don’t always know the latest methods for teaching kids with learning and thinking differences. And the teachers who do want to help need more training and support.

There’s also a bigger issue. I’ve found that the special education services in public school are generally better than those you can get at a private school.

It’s a sensitive area that we’re navigating as our kids move into middle school and high school. Should we keep them at the parochial school or consider moving them to the local public school? I’m torn because we’re so connected to our current school community.

For now, I’m praying for guidance and counting my blessings. During the past 10 years, we’ve been in a great parochial school with special education services. It’s been a wonderful experience, and I feel like we’re on the right track. In the end, only time will tell if my prayers will be answered.

Learn more about special education in private school. Read about the different options when choosing a school. And if you’re considering private school, see a list of what to look for in a private school.


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