For Students with Learning Differences, Catholic Schools Combine Dignity, New Designs, Accountability

From the Alliance for Catholic Education written by Bill Schmitt

Hilary Murphy, a graduate of the SJCHS Benilde Program, recently earned a Master of Education degree in school counseling.

Hilary Murphy, a graduate of the SJCHS Benilde Program, recently earned a Master of Education degree in school counseling.

Washington, DC – Hilary Murphy would beg to differ with the assumption that, until very recently, Catholic K-12 schools struggled to offer students with learning differences the resources they need to succeed. Challenges tied to attention issues, reading comprehension, or academic-related health concerns were passed along to public schools, according to conventional wisdom. But Murphy recalls her student days at St. John’s College High School in Washington, D.C., from 2001 to 2005, as a life-changing time of respect and responsiveness for her and unique obstacles she faced.

“I was diagnosed with a learning disability” as an adolescent, Murphy said, but St. John’s, a Lasallian Christian Brothers school for motivated teens with college goals, placed her in an innovative grouping called the Benilde Program. Established a few years earlier by a laywoman and named after a 19th century Lasallian educator, St. Benilde (Ben-ild) Romancon, the program taught her how to manage tasks successfully given her learning style. Specialists raised awareness of needs and solutions, and all teachers understood how they could offer Benilde students accommodations without changing the rigorous curriculum and culture of the St. John’s community.

Responsibilities for identifying problems and solutions resided largely with the Benilde students. But they learned “valuable life skills,” such as how to study for a test, take notes, stay organized, and manage time and stress, Murphy said. “All of those skills were especially useful when I went to college and graduate schools.” Benilde-specific classes offering special academic support did not pull students out of the mainstream college-prep courses. Murphy recalled the bonus of friendships in “a community of students whom you connected with easily because you shared similar experiences, struggles and successes.”

The Benilde Program, which has been implemented formally in more than a dozen high schools and takes different forms and names in additional schools around the country, incorporates a number of De La Salle Christian Brothers and Catholic school values, said Brother Michael Andrejko, F.S.C., principal of St. John’s College High School.

He highlighted the dignity of every individual, the importance of meeting and serving every unique person where he or she is in life, the impact of caring relationships between teachers and students, and a religious community’s respectful collaboration with lay leaders.

St. John’s reflected the latter value 17 years ago when it turned to a laywoman, Doreen Engel, to be the founding director of the foresighted Benilde Program that changed Hilary Murphy’s school experience.

“I had a major interest in seeing what Catholic schools could do to be more welcoming and inclusive,” Engel said in a recent interview. She has been a champion for inclusive education in several leadership settings since she established and directed the St. John’s program. Engel currently leads the new Benilde initiative at St. Raphael Academy, a Christian Brothers school in Pawtucket, RI.  Various Lasallian Christian Brothers schools and others have adopted elements of the initiative under different names. A range of additional programs exist, marked by still sharper differences, for serving children with learning exceptionalities.

Engel said the spread of the Benilde initiative provides further proof that Catholic schools are more eager and better equipped than ever to serve young people with challenges ranging from ADHD to test-taking skills and the organization of tasks.

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