District Sues To Keep Autistic Girl Out Of California Classroom

“I told her she has to stay with us forever,” said her mother, laughing. “But if we help her manage her money and things, I know she could keep a job and live on her own.”

By Angela Boseman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Twelve years ago, when Lisa and Joe Rajakovich’s oldest child
started first grade at Word of God Elementary School, they were thrilled to
discover that children with autism and other learning disabilities would be in his
classes. Because of a new program at the Swissvale school, Dan Rajakovich
learned to appreciate that he and other students who weren’t “typical”
were “different but the same” as they participated in sports and learned the
fundamentals of art, music and other subjects together.

But after their fourth child, Maria, came along, the Rajakoviches’
feelings about the program ran much deeper. Maria was born with Down
syndrome, and she was able to follow her three siblings to Word of God.
“It was such a comfort for us to know that she could go,” Lisa Rajakovich said.
“We’re so fortunate that our diocese offers a wonderful program like this because a lot of other dioceses don’t.”

The program at Word of God is an outgrowth of St. Anthony School
Programs, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Now operating at 11 schools throughout the region — seven elementary, three secondary and Duquesne University, where students receive vocational training — it has become a nationally recognized model for inclusive, Catholic special education.

Thomas O’Toole, executive director of St. Anthony School Programs,
said it was unique because it is “the only program where a child can enter
in kindergarten and, at age 21, still be in a setting with peers. Others
do inclusive education at elementary and high school levels, but no one is
close to ours with different sites and, especially, with Duquesne.”

The program encourages academic excellence through basic elements
such as homework and class participation while focusing on vocational skills
such as day-care assistance, mail room training and other support functions.
“What sets it apart from others in its class is that everything
comes from the religious standpoint that everyone is equal in God’s eyes,” said
Lisa George, director of education for St. Anthony. “It’s a loving, caring
environment because it’s Christ-centered.”

That was part of the reason the Rajakoviches enrolled Maria, now 9,
in the program, but their connections to Word of God went beyond their four
children.

The couple met in kindergarten at the school when it was called St.
Anselm, dated in high school, married and chose to raise their family in
the same neighborhood and at the same school where their story began.
“We wanted Maria to have the religious aspect, and it’s nice to
continue the family tradition,” Lisa Rajakovich said. “Plus, she’s flourishing there. She’s reading and spelling and writing.” So is Nicole Hardiman, of Regent Square.

Public school teachers said Nicole would always be in special
education classes. She couldn’t read, and they said she’d never be able to
learn.

Mary Ann Hardiman didn’t buy any of that, so she sent her daughter
to Word of God the year St. Anthony School Programs began operating there.
Nicole was in the second grade.

“I’ll never forget,” her mother said. “She came home and said she
had a surprise for me, then she read a book. I was in tears. Her progress has
been phenomenal.”

Nicole Hardiman continues to defy the odds.

Last year, she was awarded the St. Joan of Arc Medallion from St.
Lucy’s Auxiliary to the Blind in recognition of more than 100 hours of
community service. She was the first student from St. Anthony School
Programs to receive the award, which honors Catholic high school students
for their achievements in volunteerism.

Now, at 19, she is enrolled in the program’s site at Duquesne, where
typical college students act as job coaches for her vocational training.
She works with children at Carlow College School and is preparing possibly to
become a teacher’s aide.

“She loves Duquesne and she loves kids,” Mary Ann Hardiman said.
“It’s amazing how she has grown from second grade into this beautiful young
lady.

She’s her own person.”

Nicole’s is one of many St. Anthony success stories. Over the past
50 years, 789 students have been served and more than 95 percent of
post-secondary graduates have been placed in the work force.

How it works
The program’s goal is to promote independence. Teaching methods that
organize and structure learning are used mainly for students with autism,
though they work well for all students.

George oversees the education process for the program.
“Our expectations are high,” she said. “We demand a lot, not only
for academics but also for social skills and behavior, because that’s what
will carry on in life.”

About 50 percent of students in St. Anthony School Programs have
learning disabilities or subnormal IQs, 30 percent have autism and 20
percent have Down syndrome. Though students don’t have to be Catholic, those who aren’t pay higher tuition.

“They make sacraments with their class, and that means a lot to
Catholic parents,” George said.

St. Anthony students’ main classroom is called the “resource room.”
The student-to-staff ratio is 3-to-1 with a maximum of 13 children at each
site.

Students are assigned to age-appropriate homerooms and included with
their general education peers 50 percent of the time.
“We find that their friends and peers are the best teachers, because
they learn from them by example,” George said.

A student’s Individualized Education Program in the resource room
encompasses reading and language arts, math, handwriting, computer and
social skills. It ensures that each continues to learn at a pace that fits
the student’s abilities. Students with more severe needs work in the resource room more often.

They stay with their homerooms mostly for classes such as physical
education, social studies, religion and music, in addition to Mass. Those
who can handle other academic classes are included as much as possible.
“Inclusive class skills determine success with their peers,” George
said. “Raising their hand, being prepared for class, doing homework, and
following rules, plus functional things like counting money, shopping and
telling time, are part of the focus. The goal is for them to be productive
citizens of the community.”

Mary Ellen Begley, a special education teacher at Word of God, said:
“Kids progress because of the interaction and support. Students here look
out for our students. They’re invited to birthday parties and they
participate in all extra-curricular activities.”

Mary Ruth Nardozzi is one of many students who enjoys the support of
peers and teachers.

“I’m 13, a teenager!” she said with a broad smile after being
congratulated for spelling her last name.
She said her favorite part of school was music class and that she
had lots of friends: “Everyone is nice.”

George agreed that that was why students such as Mary Ruth excel.
“Our kids end up being the most popular in the whole school since
everyone knows who they are,” she said. “Other parents always say they
like it because it teaches their kids acceptance and how to be a better
person.”

Hardiman said that attitude helped her daughter to develop the
confidence she needed to exceed expectations and strive toward
independence.

“The teachers were so kind, considerate, and open,” she said. “They
told the kids that the students from St. Anthony are just like you and me,
they just learn differently. I’ve never met more caring teachers than the
ones at Word of God and St. Anthony.”

Looking ahead
On Friday evening, St. Anthony School Programs held its annual
Opportunity Award Dinner to kick off the yearlong 50th anniversary
celebration. The event is a major fund-raiser for the program, which
relies on the support of donors.

Over the years, the list of donors has included local community
leaders and Robert F. Kennedy, who donated $50,000 from the Joseph P.
Kennedy Foundation in 1962.
In the meantime, students and parents such as the Rajakoviches
remain grateful.

“In my research online, I’ve found that many other parents who have
kids with Down syndrome are frustrated because there’s no inclusive
religious education in their area,” Lisa Rajakovich said. “We’re so
fortunate that our diocese sees the need to support and offer it.”
O’Toole wants to add more sites to make the program available to
every child in the diocese.

When the opportunity is given, the possibilities are endless: Maria
Rajakovich said she wanted to be a cheerleader and a doctor when she grows
up; her mother is a pediatric nurse.

Nicole Hardiman, who recently visited the apartment of a friend from
Duquesne, now wants to move out on her own.
“I told her she has to stay with us forever,” said her mother,
laughing. “But if we help her manage her money and things, I know she could
keep a job and live on her own.”

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