‘There’s nothing like the love we have in our parish’

In a lesson about "known facts," third-graders at Incarnate Word School gave teacher Emilie Lamb examples from mathematics, such as five plus two equals seven, five times five equals 25.

Aiden Hadican raised his hand to offer an example: "Eight plus two equals 10," he said.

"That's right, Aiden," Lamb confirmed, adding praise. "Good job."

Over in the fourth-grade room, students surrounded Lily Gerbic's desk and helped her with a Spanish language quiz on her computer tablet, translating English words into Spanish.

Meanwhile, Anna Kowalski merely sat with her kindergarten classmates listening to a story.

Students working together, paying attention or giving examples in class is routine stuff in education, though these scenes with these particular students are new at the school in Chesterfield.

In years past, the parish school lacked the resources and know-how to educate students with special needs, such as Aiden, Lily and Anna — all of whom have Down syndrome. But a grant from the OneClassroom foundation, additional staff, careful research and faculty training made inclusive education a reality for the three students, whose parents belong to the parish. The parents simply wanted faith-based education for their special children, with their siblings, at the parish school.

"It's something we knew we always wanted," Anna's mom, Sarah Smith, said. She and her husband, Bill Kowalski, also have a son, Joseph, in fifth grade at Incarnate Word. "There's nothing like the love we have in our parish."

Though the parish school's journey in inclusive education officially began in August, it unofficially began not long after Lily Gerbic was born. Lily needed oxygen support and remained at St. John Mercy Hospital, where a surprise visitor materialized. With no family in St. Louis, Lily's mom, Kirsten, said, "I couldn't imagine who would have gone to visit her."

The visitor turned out to be quite familiar: Mike Welling, the principal at Incarnate Word, where Lily's older siblings — Sam, Jack and Anna — attended school. Older sister Becca now is in seventh grade there as well. "It really did start then," Welling admitted.

However, when Lily was ready for kindergarten five years later, school officials and her family concluded that Incarnate Word wasn't ready to offer inclusive education, for lack of experience and resources. Still, inclusive education was beckoning.

A few years later, LeeAnn and Tony Armitage started the OneClassroom foundation to help fund inclusive education for students with severe special needs at parish schools. Their son, Christopher, has Down syndrome, so the foundation piloted an inclusion program at their parish school — Mary, Queen of Peace in Webster Groves.

Incarnate Word school officials attended OneClassroom's presentation about the pilot program at St. Louis Priory School in March 2016. A month later, faculty went on the foundation's bus trip to Kansas City to see inclusion in action in the Diocese of Kansas City/St. Joseph, where all students with special needs are in regular parish schools. Then, Armitage impressed Welling, teachers, school board members and the pastor in a presentation at Incarnate Word in May 2016.

"He was so filled with spirituality and charity," Welling said. "I said, 'Wow, we have got to look into this.' We got really serious." Later, Welling spoke with then-pastor Father G. Timothy Vowels, who has since passed the quest to the new pastor, Father Kevin Schroeder.

"Father (Vowels) said, 'How can we not do this?'" said Welling, who prepared for inclusion by expanding roles for two teacher aides, adding a full-time and two part-time para-educators and hiring Joan Sale, who came out of retirement from the Special School District to lead curriculum planning on a part-time basis. Faculty also received training from the Down Syndrome Association of Greater St. Louis.

The students with special needs are popular at recess and can't walk the halls without being greeted with smiles and high-fives. "They're thriving," Barrett Hadican said.

For Kirsten and Pete Gerbic, the wait for inclusive education was worth it. "That gap in time between when we first approached the school and this year has been time well-used," she said, noting the research and preparation to make it so. "This is God's perfect timing." 

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