Kyle Augustin (center) poses with his family — (l to r) sister Katie (Augustin) Kohl, parents Donna and Jim, and sister Katie (Augustin) Goedert — after completing his studies at Wahlert Catholic High School in Dubuque in 2014. (Contributed photo)
Young man with a disability completed Catholic school
“Why inclusion rather than segregation? Because we are one body in Christ. It’s as simple as that! That’s the spiritual imperative which is much stronger than any law.”
– National Catholic Board
on Full Inclusion
By Deacon Stephen and
Special to The Witness
DUBUQUE — Donna and Jim Augustin had a dilemma. Their son Kyle is developmentally disabled. Although disabled in some ways, Kyle is very able in many. The school he was attending often frightened Kyle. Donna recalls that several years ago, a week before school started, Kyle emphatically stated he was not going to return that year to his school under any circumstances. “I want to go to Holy Family schools. I want to have Jesus everyday and I want to be back with my church friends,” Kyle told his parents.
Initially, one of the concerns that the Augustins had was the affordability of Catholic education. In visiting with Deb Fleckenstein, special projects coordinator for the Catholic schools of the archdiocese, Donna learned of Student Tuition Organizations (STO) and how this could benefit families such as theirs. Fleckenstein shared that a Catholic school education could be possible for Kyle. She encouraged the Augustins to have an initial meeting with the school principals of Wahlert Catholic High School and Mazzuchelli Catholic Middle School to ensure that their child’s needs could be met.
A meeting was set with Kim Hermsen, Mazzuchelli Catholic Middle School principal at the time, and presently superintendent of schools for the Catholic schools of the archdiocese. Hermsen assured the Augustins that there were Catholic schools in the archdiocese that would accept Kyle. Accommodations would need to be made to meet Kyle’s educational and social needs.
Donna Augustin continued, “We wanted a school where prayer and Mass would be present. We wanted Kyle to develop friendships and proper social skills. We wanted Kyle to feel like he belonged and was safe. Academically, we knew that Kyle would not meet all the expectations and we had to make a decision as to what we were looking for in education for Kyle. Kim Hermsen saw a vision for Kyle at Mazzuchelli Catholic Middle School and believed in him. I will always remember Kyle’s excitement when I told him he was accepted. The transition was handled by Mazzuchelli staff with such acceptance and grace.”
Kyle was enrolled at Mazzuchelli Catholic Middle School in eighth grade and began to love school. He was accepted and valued. After Mazzuchelli, Kyle went on to Wahlert Catholic High School and the success continued.
Never has Wahlert had a greater proponent than Kyle, and never was there a greater Golden Eagle sports fan. Kyle (nicknamed Augie) was awarded the Individual Spirit Award at Wahlert, thanks to the support of the student body and principal Ronald Meyers. He was also crowned “Mr. Wahlert” by his fellow classmates.
Kyle took great pleasure in choir and show choir at Wahlert. He often said: “Music is my passion.” Unknown to his parents, Kyle had set a goal for himself. He wanted to sing a solo before leaving Wahlert Catholic. Pam Mumm, music teacher at Wahlert at the time, gave Kyle individual voice lessons so he could reach his goal before he graduated. Jim Kuhl, chair of the religion department, and Michele Gelaude, the campus minister at Wahlert at the time, both encouraged Kyle to reach his goal. Kyle sang his solo at the All-School Easter Season Mass and at the school spring concert under the direction of Aaron Behnke.
The Augustin family were elated by all their son was able to achieve during his time in school. Kyle completed his education at Wahlert in 2014.
“Looking back, I recalled my first Christian Experience Weekend and the wonderful healing experience I had,” Donna said.
“As I witnessed to the CEW greater community, I shared that Jim and I were blessed with our special child Kyle. I was always worried about meeting all his needs.”
“We were teaching Kyle sign language to communicate and I wasn’t sure he would ever talk,” remembered the mother. “I asked the greater community to pray and support us in the journey ahead. I realized that day that ‘With God,’ all things are possible.”
“Kyle had everyday hurdles to conquer and he gave it his all,” reflected Donna. “He continues to sing and practice his show choir performances every day. Music can be therapy for children with special needs.”
Donna went on to explain, “Kyle was able to attend Catholic schools because of the wonderful support of all the staff and students. We are so grateful.”
Kyle is an essential member of the Body of Christ. Wahlert and Mazzuchelli recognized that. The schools have been blessed because of Kyle. The schools recognized the truth in the statement by Pope Benedict XVI: “No child should be denied his or her right to an education in faith, which in turn nurtures the soul of a nation.”
We ourselves, the authors of this article, are both retired Catholic school teachers with over 65 years of combined classroom experience and who have had the honor of teaching many students with special needs. With the proper effort, adaptations can be made and success will follow. A student confined to a jerry chair was able to participate and write because of an adapted keyboard. Students with visual impairments, dyslexia, and other difficulties with decoding and writing, were able to advance in comprehension and writing skills using computer programs, iPods, spell check, grammar check and Google Docs. Many students with math disabilities were assisted with calculators, computer programs and math manipulatives. Behavior challenges received assistance from Catholic Charities and Lutheran Services. Hearing impaired students were helped by microphones, adapted hearing aids and speaker systems. Sight impaired students received adaptation assistance from the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School. With just a little computer surfing, many organizations will be discovered that will help with these adaptations, including covering expenses. Catholic schools can, and have, successfully integrated special needs students into their programs. Many helpful suggestions can be found at these sites:
Nicole Eredics, creator of the blog The Inclusive Class, has written an excellent article: 10 reasons for Inclusive Schools. Two of the reasons are: “Children become accepting and understanding of one another’s abilities, talents, personalities and needs,” and “Meaningful relationships and friendships develop as students spend quality time with one another.” The entire list is available online. Eredics’ blog is an excellent one for teachers, administrators and parents. It is well worth a look and gives us a path to follow as we continue to work toward welcoming all of God’s children into our Catholic schools.
According to Dr. Martin Scanlan, author of “All Are Welcome: Inclusive Service Delivery in Catholic Schools,” a vital precept of Catholic social teaching we all need to practice is to give “ … a preferential option for the marginalized.” Dr. Scanlan goes on to say, “Catholic social teaching compels Catholic schools to include traditionally marginalized students, yet the practices of exclusion and elitism in recruitment and retention of students by Catholic schools persists.” In some areas this may be true; however, we see a much more open attitude existing in many Catholic schools and that openness continues to grow. Kyle’s positive experience is an excellent example.
Dennis McNulty, the director of Catholic Charities Disability Services for the Diocese of Cleveland, in his reflection of the Pastoral Statement of the U.S. Catholic Bishops on Persons with Disabilities, shares the following with us: “We look to the future with what we feel is a realistic optimism. We also have faith that our quest for justice, increasingly enlisted on the side of individuals with disabilities, will work powerfully in their behalf. With God’s help and our own determination, the day will come when that right is realized in the lives of all people with disabilities.”