St. Michael's Catholic Academy Serves All College-Bound Students, Including Those with Special Learning Needs

Article excerpt

Learning Center offers equal access and compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act

Ten years ago, the administration of St. Michael's Catholic Academy decided to open a Learning Center at its Austin, Texas, campus. The center was proposed to serve all of the academy's college-bound students, including those who were having difficulty in school and those with special learning needs.

Parents and community leaders donated time and funds to provide a position for a disability specialist to lead the center and, in 1998, St. Michael's Catholic Academy officially opened the Learning Center, one of the first at a secondary school in the United States. Because the founding director previously had served students with disabilities in postsecondary education, creating a program for high school students who were college-bound was a natural match for her experience. Over the last 10 years, the director has offered outreach support to many Catholic schools wanting to begin a program founded on our Learning Center model.

The Learning Center and the ADA

Catholic education generally supports diversity within the student population on a national level. However, the Learning Center model at St. Michael's Catholic Academy also strives to meet the basic standards of civil rights law as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. The core value of equal accesses for those qualified students in Catholic education within ADA guidelines mirrors the church's commitment to social justice. ADA is a legal framework designed to end discrimination of all kinds, which allows St. Michael's the flexibility to provide an accessible, college preparatory program grounded in Christian values.

More specifically, the ADA prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities participating in educational programs and is intended to provide students with disabilities the same educational opportunities that others receive. In order to ensure that this goal is met, both physical and programmatic access is provided, which means that appropriate academic adjustments are provided in the instructional process - such as extended time or a quiet room that offer some students a means to achieve their academic success.

Students with special needs often bring diverse yet unique strengths and experiences to the campus. Although some students learn in different ways, these differences do not mean that the students have inferior capacities. Thus, the following factors need to be considered when determining an educational plan: (1) physical accessibility, (2) how to provide access to information, (3) how to provide opportunity for meaningful participation in certain activities such as labs and (4) how to evaluate fairly on the basis of achievement rather than disability.

A disability specialist is needed in order to evaluate these factors and interpret the documented assessments to determine how best to provide services that meet the demands of the essential elements, while at the same time provide reasonable support for each student. The guidelines of ADA allow the school to determine best how to accomplish this goal of access while maintaining the core values of the school mission.

St. Michael's mission is "to serve a diverse student body" while preparing "the whole student for leadership, service and decision-making consistent with Catholic values." Academic support is a critical component that exists in all levels within the programming at St. Michael's. The Learning Center model creates an inclusive environment that values all students' learning struggle and provides a safe haven of support and guidance as they traverse through high school and discover their own personal calling in life.

Referral to the Learning Center

Students are referred to the Learning Center in several ways. Incoming freshmen and transfer students attend a study skills seminar during orientation. …