Catholic School Courts Special Needs Students

Catholic School Courts Special Needs Students

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At a time when enrollment is down and money is tight, a Catholic high school on Chicago’s North side is refusing to go down without a fight. Like many struggling schools, it’s turned to alumni and corporate donors for help. But St. Gregory the Great is also recruiting the kids many private schools deem too expensive to help: refugees and kids with learning disabilities. The school hopes this niche will be their ticket to survival. For Chicago Public Radio, Monique Parsons reports.

It’s a typical high school scene: A hallway fills with boisterous students. Lockers creak open and slam shut. Teen-agers cradling books dash to the next class.

St. Gregory the Great High School, one of 39 Catholic high schools in the Chicago area, keeps a low profile here on this quiet corner in the West Andersenville neighborhood.

But there’s something unusual going on here. 

DOYLE: If a reaction in one direction releases energy, the reaction in the opposite direction?
SMITH: Absorbs energy. 
DOYLE: Good.

Angela Smith is 16 years old. She’s a sophomore studying for a biology test. Smith has a learning disability. But she’s not alone here. Almost 30 percent of her classmates at St. Gregory have some form of disability. That’s double the state average.

For a parochial school, that’s unusual. Among the six Catholic high schools run by the archdiocese of Chicago, it’s unprecedented. 

Students like Angela Smith take a 90-minute special ed class every day, and get help with homework, organization and study skills. This special attention doesn’t come cheap. Principal Erika Mickelburgh says the school struggles to make ends meet, but enrolling kids with special needs is part of St. Gregory’s mission.

MICKELBURGH: There have been sleepless nights, where you think, you know, payroll is coming up and tuition dollars aren’t coming in ‘cause parents are struggling and we see that, and where is the money to pay the heating bill, where is that going to come from? Or make payroll? But what keeps you going and moving forward and asking for the money is the students. Because I don’t know where some of theses students would go and be as successful.

And she says the kids are successful. More than 90 percent of her graduates go on to college, says Mickelburgh. This track record is what has convinced the archdiocese to keep St. Gregory open.

They hope this niche will capture the attention of potential donors, as well as more families who can pay the $7,000 tuition. Mickelburgh took in even more special needs students last fall. Nine teen-agers from Catholic Charities’ refugee resettlement program are learning English here and getting extra help in St. Gregory’s special ed class.

Walk the halls here and you probably couldn’t pick them out among the diverse faces and matching khaki and blue uniforms. It’s their stories that set them apart—Mickelburg has a girl from Cuba, Christian refugees from the Congo and Sudan, Muslims whose families fled war in Iraq and oppression in Burma.

MICKELBURGH: We had to really take them by the hand, and the students are the ones who did this, to show them everything, from how to go through the lunch line, to opening their lockers, to what do all these crazy bells mean in the middle of the day, to daylight savings tiem, to simple rules and regulations of our uniform code, they were so cold in the winter and they wanted to wear their scarves and hats, so we had to work with them on those issues. But they’re doing beautifully.

The refugee students sit at folding tables in the school library, watching as teacher Charlie Pierce write English sentences on an overhead projector. They shyly respond to his questions. The words come slowly.

Pierce is patient but persistent. When a kid gets a tense wrong, or forgets a plural noun, another pitches in to help.

St. Gregory waived tuition for these kids—something no other Catholic school had ever offered to do for Catholic Charities.

Parents of special needs students pulled their kids out of public high schools as soon as they heard the offer. Lavina Joseph, a freshman who fled Sudan with her mother in 2002, has already mastered English. She said her mom worried about her going to a large public high school.

LAVINA: There were always like fights, kids fighting, and gangs, and I was also afraid. When I came here, I feel safer.

That sense of intimacy has long set St. Gregory apart. The first co-ed Catholic high school in the city, it’s also been among the smallest.

But when Ken Lydecker went here in the mid 60s, there were more than 500 students. Today there are only 186. Lydecker, a fundraiser who joined the board recently, said he was at first shocked at how much had changed. A consultant hired by the archdiocese persuaded the board that it was time to let go of the past - and focus on attracting more special ed students.

LYDECKER: He said, if anybody who graduated from St. Gregory’s is longing for the old days, thinking that this is going to some day once again become the 5 or 600 person school that’s the traditional high school, it’s not going to happen. He said, I think, as a board, a school being so small, and I know one your challenges is financial because you kind of get by every year from year to year with grants from different places, is the fact that you are missing out on just how unique your school is.

Maybe the school’s uniqueness will pay off. This year, the archdiocese is helping the school hire a president. Among the new president’s duties: raising money. If he or she succeeds, the school may be able to help even more students with learning disabilities.

Meanwhile, Principal Mickelburgh is getting ready to accept two more refugees this spring. There’s no extra money yet, she says, but she’s taking them on faith. She says it?s the mission of a good Catholic school.

For Chicago Public Radio, I’m Monique Parsons.

Music Button: The Album Leaf, “The MP,” from the CD One Day I’ll Be On Time, (Tigerstyle records)