Lawrence parish school makes inclusivity a priority

[The Leaven Catholic Newspaper] Lawrence parish school makes inclusivity a priority

St. John the Evangelist fifth grader Mila Reffett works on a project with her paraprofessional Micah Naeger. Naeger helps Mila throughout her day with academic and behavior support. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

by Susan Fotovich McCabeSpecial to The Leaven

LAWRENCE — When Chris Reffett recently walked the halls of St. John School here, he did so as both a principal and a parent.

That’s not all that unusual. Many Catholic school teachers and administrators choose to make their parish school a family affair.

But on this day, Reffett was assessing the school’s vibes — its inclusivity vibes. Reffett is a father of two daughters who have Down syndrome, and the school was recently awarded new funding for its inclusion initiatives for students with special needs.

Chris Reffett, principal of St. John the Evangelist School in Lawrence, is not only the principal but also a parent of three St. John students — two with special needs. From left are: Sophie, seventh grade; Mila, fifth grade; and RayLee, seventh grade. The staff of St. John has made it a part of St. John’s mission to ensure students with special needs feel welcomed, embraced and supported. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

The staff of St. John and Reffett have made it a part of St. John’s mission to ensure students with special needs feel welcomed, embraced and supported.

“Our Catholic faith is at work here,” Reffett said. “It’s about being intentional and teaching. We can talk about being inclusive from what we have learned from our faith. And if a student or a parent asks why this is important, I say, ‘This is what we’re taught to do — to include everybody.’”

Funding the future

St. John recently received a $5,000 grant from National Catholic Partners on Disabilities (NCPD) through the Angel in Disguise organization. The school currently has three staff members dedicated to supporting students with special needs. Some of those students receive itinerant services through the Lawrence public school district.

Chris Reffett works with his daughter RayLee. Reffett and his staff have made a point to ensure students with special needs feel welcomed, embraced and supported. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

Although St. John is still assessing the best use of the financial support, Reffett hopes this and the school’s “lead by example” reputation will speak for itself and spread to new families considering a Catholic education.

Vince Cascone is superintendent for schools of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas. He said the archdiocese’s Catholic faith positions it well for embracing needs of all kinds.

“The Catholic Church is the universal church. As Catholic schools, we need to do everything we can to welcome students with special needs,” Cascone said. “The mission of our schools centers on bringing our students into a relationship with Jesus Christ. This mission is so much more profound than any academic goals we could have and certainly applies to students with special needs.”

From left, RayLee Reffett, Lucy Godfrey and Sophie Reffett work as a group to make a poster advertising St. John’s Fall Food Drive in their StuCo class. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

Still, Cascone says, Catholic schools, like their public counterparts, are challenged by not having adequate resources. This includes financial resources for hiring special education teachers and funding more opportunities for professional development for all staff. 

Inclusion is a win for all students

Reffett said St. John is already working toward a classroom model that recognizes the benefits of modifications and accommodations for all students. One of the school’s strategies is to work within peer groups.

Reffett’s daughter Mila is in fifth grade; daughter RayLee is in seventh grade and spends half her time at St. John and half at a Lawrence middle school. His middle daughter, Sophie, attends St. John and is in seventh grade. Reffett recently had the chance to see the benefits of small group work with Mila.

“I walked in one day and saw her class working in small groups on a debate,” he said. “Mila was included, and the group and the other students valued what she was contributing. They gave her their respect. She’s not an outlier.”

Mila Reffett and paraprofessional Micah Naeger share a laugh during a lesson at St. John the Evangelist School. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

That encounter was especially nice for Reffett who, with his wife Jill, decided to home school RayLee and Mila during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Inclusivity teaches respect

As a principal, Reffett sees what an inclusive school setting is doing for all students. Typically developing students clearly benefit from working with students with special needs, he said. It teaches compassion, patience, respect and a host of other values driven by the Catholic faith.

“What struck me is that parents, in general, are telling me that their kids are looking for an environment that is loving and accepting,” Reffett said. “I’ve had parents in her class tell me how much it means to have their kids partner with Mila and how much they appreciate that their kids are getting the experience of learning with a student with special needs.  It’s how the world should be.”

Creating an inclusive school setting is not without its challenges for students and staff, he said, but it’s a step in the right direction. Once again, he leans on the school’s Catholic teachings to find a way forward.

“Unfortunately, we still must work toward inclusion and achieve that in any and every way possible. As a school community, we’ll find support by leaning on the power of our faith,” Reffett said. “I think this is exactly how it should be. But it can be done.”