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Cardinal O’Hara to welcome special education students this fall


When Cardinal O’Hara High School says “You belong here,” they mean everyone. This fall the Franciscan-based college preparatory school will welcome special education students to its Tonawanda campus. The school board just approved a program to incorporate students with intellectual and cognitive disabilities into the general education classrooms. The program comes from new principal Joleen Dimitroff who has worked in special ed for her 33-year public school career.

The initial idea was to have a self-contained life skills class with a 12-1-1 model – twelve students, one teacher, and one aide. After attending a national conference for full inclusion in Catholic schools in Fairfax, Virginia, with Maria McGrath, O’Hara’s special education teacher, the plan changed.

“We shifted our thinking to more of an inclusive model, so that our students who are registered within the program would be, for the majority of the day, in general ed classes with support,” explained Dimitroff. “They would have smaller classes for specific instruction in reading and math. We’ll meet them where they are.”

Part of the decision came when staff realized that the students, all students, would benefit from the social interaction.

“We realized they really need exposure to the general curriculum. They may not grasp all of the content, but there is still learning going on. And for socialization too, it’s important that they are in general ed classes for the majority of the day,” Dimitroff said.

Designing the program after Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Virginia, the new model involves an aide and a peer mentor. A peer mentor would be a current student with an understanding of intellectual disabilities, trained on how to assist a special ed student in a general ed classroom. They will pair up with students with high aptitude to help as a tutor.

“That way we have this reciprocal benefit of the program. We’re building empathy and leadership and character within our general education students, so they can internalize that joy that you have when you help someone,” said Dimitroff.

McGrath will modify the curriculum in general education classrooms for the special ed students and provide specialized instruction in a smaller group to keep those students progressing. The special ed students would have different goals than the general ed students. When algebra students learn about volume and surface area of shapes, the special ed students may focus on cylinders with their peer mentors, rather than the 10 different shapes that the other kids are working on. In English, instead of reading “Romeo And Juliet,” they will listen on tape and examine the text in small chunks, rather than big chapters to understand the essence of the story, not necessarily the intricacies of the different literary elements.

Students will come with an Individual Education Plan that would help identify if they would benefit from the program.

 “What’s really exciting about the program is it’s super individualized,” explained McGrath. “Each kid in our program will be looked at individually, looking at their IEP and figuring out what are their strengths, what are their areas of improvements, and how can we build up their strengths and lessen the gaps between the grade level and where they are.”

A life skills component comes in the form of a culinary program. All students would manage an in-house restaurant for teachers at the school. This involves creating menus, shopping for ingredients, preparing and serving meals one day a week. Physical and occupational therapy come into play as well. Currently in the planning stages, the program will grow as the year progresses.

  The outcomes for the new students will be different than for a general Regents-level student. Graduates may get a local diploma or certification of completion. After four years some students will go to college as programs for people with intellectual disabilities are starting to grow across the United States, others will receive job coaching or vocational training.

 “The main goal is always working toward an independence skill and a fulfilling life,” Dimitroff said.

Currently, four students are enrolled in the new special ed program. Dimitroff hopes to grow the program slowly. “We really think we can accommodate 12 students within the program,” she said, adding that, based on inquiries, she expects a total of six students this year. The program can accommodate a broad range of disabilities including autism and Down syndrome. “There are some other students though who don’t necessarily have a diagnosis of Down syndrome or autism that still have cognitive delays or intellectual disabilities,” she said.


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