Diocese of Phoenix Setting New Standard of Inclusivity
Great things are happening around the country to serve “exceptional learners” — students who learn in different ways, such as those who are English language learners, who are gifted or who have learning challenges such as autism or dyslexia. The Diocese of Phoenix, Arizona, after extensive research and practice, developed programming that catapults exceptional learners into success. The diocese’s programming gives teachers the power to teach all students, while also positively impacting peers and the surrounding community.
Colleen McCoy-Cejka, assistant superintendent of the Diocese of Phoenix, worked with Catholic school alumna Lisa Colangelo Fischer to start the Arizona Catholic Schools Disability Fund. Fischer, who was born deaf, was passionate about offering a Catholic education inclusive to all. This funding mechanism raises money to provide training and equipment to schools so that they can help meet all students’ needs.
This summer, CSCOE will host a conference on exceptional learners for Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of St. Paul & Minneapolis. The Diocese of Phoenix will be the main facilitator in the conference. More than 350 teachers and principals will attend. Excitement is building to incorporate best practices in our Archdiocese.
In Phoenix, with the expertise of special educators and occupational therapists and detailed research, an accessible website called LiveBinder was created. Originally serving as an outlet to educate teachers about accessible classroom materials, LiveBinder has flourished. It is now a nationally used resource for parents and teachers alike, informing website visitors about academic challenges, autism and sensory needs, social/behavioral challenges, inspirational TED Talks, suggested materials and more.
When it comes to best practices, McCoy-Cejka says education of the community is an important piece. She also emphasized that having a resource teacher in the school that is dedicated to serving exceptional learners is key.
“All of our schools have exceptional learners in them,” McCoy-Cejka said. “So, if they’re there, we really do need to be serving them appropriately.”
St. Gregory, the pilot school, hosted a fair where students experienced what it would be like to have learning differences. Exposure to a variety of differences underscored the importance of empathy for others. This experience was also extended to the greater community. St. Gregory’s enrollment has increased since the program.
“I believe that it’s a result of their efforts of truly living the Catholic mission and being authentically Catholic in what they are doing that made their enrollment grow,” McCoy-Cejka said.
The Diocese of Phoenix hopes to spur action throughout the country.
We all need to get better, and we all get better when we help each other,” McCoy-Cejka said. “The more kids we can help, the better off we’re all going to be.”