From struggle to success
In supporting students who struggle in the classroom, educators in the Diocese of Fort Worth are “expanding the box” of who can benefit from a Catholic education.
Years ago, a student with learning differences such as dyslexia or autism would have to attend public school to receive extra help and targeted instruction.
“If kids didn’t fit into the box, we couldn’t help them,” said Jenny McNulty, a learning specialist who serves all 19 campuses in the diocese. “We’re working now to expand that box and successfully teach every student who walks through the door.”
With the growing number of learning specialists in the diocese, students and their families are now finding the resources they need in the diocese’s Catholic schools.
Several campuses have learning specialists who work with the struggling student, parents, teachers, and administrators to determine what the child needs to be successful at school and to create a game plan for everyone to follow.
As a learning specialist for the diocese, McNulty works primarily with faculty to train them in understanding what accommodations a student with learning differences or disabilities may need.
The diocese-wide position is new this year and allows McNulty to help campuses without a dedicated learning specialist.
For the last several years, McNulty was a learning specialist at Nolan Catholic High School and at St. Maria Goretti Catholic School and mostly worked with students, teachers, and families.
Students who are not making progress in the classroom might have a learning disability or have a social, emotional, or medical need, NcNulty said. That’s where the learning specialists get involved.
“We’re figuring out exactly what is happening with the student and how we can help,” she said.
Some students might require extra support like dyslexia therapy or counseling, and many diocesan schools now bring in specialists on a regular basis to assist students, McNulty said.
For high school students in the diocese, several resources are available.
Jennifer Dahmer, director of learning support for students at Nolan and at Cassata High School, helps students who need accommodations (especially academic or medical) and tracks their success plans.
While Cassata has a self-paced curriculum that many students find beneficial, others want the traditional high school experience that Nolan provides, Dahmer said.
She helps families find the best options for their students and develop a strategy for success.
“We talk with students about the plan so they know what they can and can’t ask for,” Dahmer said. “As they progress from freshmen to seniors, we want them to become more independent and also to know what they can ask for in college.”
For the last few years, Nolan has also offered a study skills class for students.
Ana Nieves, learning support specialist and academic coach at Nolan, teaches the class, which focuses on such skills as note-taking, learning to do research, and best practices for taking tests.
“What I love is I’m able to give students the tools they need to be successful,” Nieves said.
Students are placed in the class by the counseling department or at the request of parents.
Nieves also works in the school’s learning lab, where she provides a quiet place for kids to take tests and can assist with accommodations like reading questions aloud to students.
Nieves came to Nolan several years ago from Arlington ISD. She’d always been drawn to helping those with learning challenges and saw “an incredible change” in her own daughter after she switched from a public to a Catholic school.
When Nieves saw an opening at Nolan, she knew she wanted to apply. Now she relishes the opportunity to impact students through faith and academics.
“I truly feel like this is what I am called to do,” she said.
Aiming to reach every child
The goal of “expanding the box” for more students to gain a Catholic education is not a new one.
Jennifer Pelletier, superintendent of schools in the diocese, said the ability to reach every child is “a very Catholic idea.”
Just as some financial aid should be available to those who need it, so should extra support for children to succeed in the classroom, she said.
Pelletier, McNulty, and Nieves credit one educator with playing an instrumental role in growing the learning specialist program in the diocese.
Leah Rios, now president at Nolan, was one of the first learning specialists in the diocese, working at St. Andrew Catholic School.
Several years ago, Pelletier and Rios began working on a plan to “teach teachers to better respond to individual learning needs,” Pelletier said.
Rios continues training teachers in addition to her role at Nolan.
She came by her interest in helping kids with challenges when her own daughter, now 20 and a student at the University of Texas at Arlington, had trouble learning to read, write, or do math — “pretty much anything in print,” Rios said. A bright child with a big vocabulary, her daughter often fell behind at school. She was told her daughter needed to work harder, but Rios knew how hard her daughter labored over homework.
Rios knew something was wrong, and her research led her to a dyslexia expert. The diagnosis and therapy helped her daughter succeed in school.
Then a colleague encouraged Rios to get certified as a dyslexia specialist, and she began to help many more struggling students, eventually becoming a learning specialist.
Pelletier and Rios also want to eliminate the stigma that comes with learning difficulties.
“This is not a child being lazy or just deciding they’re going to be stubborn,” Pelletier said. “We help parents understand the reason why their child is struggling so much or taking so much time.”
While teacher training and learning specialists are helping more kids succeed in the classroom, she said “there are those extreme cases we’re not able to handle — yet.” The goal is to include more and more families in parish schools, so students learn to seek God’s truth and build His kingdom.
Pelletier said, “Every child who wants a Catholic education — no matter their disability, mental or physical — should be able to attend Catholic schools.”