Inclusion The Hallmark Of St. Paul’s ‘CORE Pack

By Beth Donze, Clarion Herald
Photos Courtesy The St. Paul’s School

A pilot program set to begin its third year of operation at The St. Paul’s School in Covington is showing how students with developmental disabilities not only can survive but also can thrive alongside their peers in a traditional Catholic high school setting.

St. Paul’s “CORE Pack” initiative will be providing a customized education to a record 13 students with exceptional learning needs in the 2019-20 school year, while immersing them in the full high school experience.

“CORE” is an acronym for “Catholic Opportunity for a Responsive Education,” while “Pack” is a nod to St. Paul’s wolf mascot.

“It is a program designed to include children with developmental disabilities whose parents want them to have a Catholic education,” explained Trevor Watkins, St. Paul’s principal.

“The traditional Catholic school-prep curriculum is not very responsive to these kids, but that doesn’t mean that their parents don’t want a Catholic education for them,” Watkins added.

“(CORE Pack) merges those two things – it creates a program within a Catholic high school that meets the needs of those kids who would not normally qualify for admission to a college-prep school.”

Flexible and individualized

CORE Pack director Lauren Gee, who helped launch the program at St. Paul’s after 18 years of teaching exceptional learners in Atlanta and St. Tammany Parish public schools, works with two other CORE Pack teachers certified in special education: Carla Barwick and Rick Zimmer. The school day of the CORE Pack students, whose challenges include cerebral palsy, autism, Down Syndrome, fragile X syndrome and other genetic conditions, is tailored to the unique needs and interests of each boy.

“Each kid has his own needs, so we have boys who spend several periods in the CORE room, where they’re getting individual instruction in reading, math and so on, and others who spend most of their day in regular classes, and simply go to the CORE room for additional support,” Gee said, noting that the CORE teachers also will accompany students to their “regular classes” if they require additional support.

“In general, we take the standard academic, college-prep diploma requirement that St. Paul’s has off the table – so that we can customize our education for them,” Gee said. “They can take longer with their work; they don’t have to participate in every class; just because they’re a junior doesn’t mean they have to take English III – we can pick and choose what’s best for each child.”

Gee said CORE Pack students would not be able to function in St. Paul’s regular curriculum if not for the individualized schedules.

“(Their challenges are) more significant than just a basic learning disability, because just a basic learning disability with standard accommodations would be fine to access the general curriculum,” she said.

Transformed campus culture

One component that has emerged as being key to the program’s success is the large number of  St. Paul’s students who have stepped up to volunteer as peer mentors.

“Some of our mentor students have actually asked for a period off where they are with that student, say, in math class,” Watkins said.

Last May, after they had graduated, four seniors asked school leaders if they could accompany their CORE Pack friends on a field trip to the swamp. The exceptional and traditional learners also eat lunch together in the cafeteria, get together over the summer and attended prom together.

“This is the whole point,” Watkins said. “We want them to be full participants in everything that the school offers. The whole idea is to push them as far as they can go in all areas of Catholic school – the faith piece, the extracurricular piece, the academic piece, the social piece. We want them to be fully integrated in the school.”

The CORE Pack boys, who also take religion and participate in all faith-based activities, typically sit with their peer mentors and favorite teachers at Mass, Watkins added.

Given that CORE Pack students probably will not follow the traditional college and career paths of their schoolmates, the program has a strong vocational training and work skills component. For example, CORE Pack students can gain work experience at St. Paul’s on-campus PJ’s coffee shop – open at lunchtime and before and after school – as baristas, cashiers and shopkeepers.

The CORE Pack students also unleash their talents in numerous extracurricular activities, including band, theater and student council, and in sports such as baseball, football and basketball.

“Our goal is for them to be out with their typical peers as much as possible, to the fullest extent that they can. That is our No. 1 goal,” Watkins said. “How can we plug them in and where can we plug them in to the highest degree that we can?”

How CORE got started

The seeds of CORE Pack were planted several years ago when Archbishop Gregory Aymond approached St. Paul’s president, Christian Brother Raymond Bulliard, about piloting a program at a traditional Catholic secondary school that lovingly and holistically addressed the needs of students with developmental disabilities. Watkins admits he initially was unaware of the need, presuming that this group of students was being well served by St. Tammany public schools. However, an archdiocesan survey of Catholic parishes on the northshore revealed that one of parents’ main concerns was that there were no Catholic schools there that would accept students with developmental difficulties. The situation had created a “Catch 22” in which parents of exceptional learners didn’t apply at St. Paul’s because there was no place for their children; and because those students didn’t apply, school leaders were unaware the need existed.

Around the same time, the superior general of the Christian Brothers in Rome asked its member schools throughout the world, which educate more than 1 million students, to identify a group each was underserving, and then reach out to that group.

“Each school was left to interpret what ‘underserved’ meant in their respective communities,” Watkins said.

St. Paul’s decided that proactively including students with developmental disabilities would be its answer to the challenge. In a nutshell, St. Paul’s would proclaim that exceptional learners were “no more or no less deserving of a Catholic education” than any other student.

“Who are we to say this kid deserves a Catholic education because he’s bright, but this kid who has learning difficulties doesn’t deserve a Catholic education because he’s not?” Watkins said. “We had to throw out our way of thinking in terms of the traditional high school path for a boy in our school, because these kids are not on a traditional path because they’re not in our regular curriculum.”

To design CORE Pack, the St. Paul’s leadership team visited St. Thomas More, a co-ed Catholic high school in Lafayette, to study its own model of educational inclusion. They also worked closely with Catholic Schools associate superintendent Katherine Shea, who specializes in fostering ways schools can meet the needs of exceptional learners and collaborates with the archdiocesan Committee for Students with Developmental Disabilities.

Growing the program

As word about CORE Pack’s success has gotten out, enrollment has grown from five students in the program’s inaugural academic year of 2017-18, to nine students last year, to the 13 students expected on campus this fall. Parents use a separate admissions process and timeline to register their children, Watkins said.

“These kids typically aren’t coming to us out of Catholic schools, because Catholic schools haven’t had these kids. So, for now, we’re admitting kids out of public school who have been in the public system but want the Catholic element but up to now haven’t had the opportunity,” Watkins said.

The principal said the ultimate plan, which has not yet been formalized, is to create a northshore CORE Pack program serving grades K-12, with Our Lady of the Lake in Mandeville facilitating elementary students, and graduating boys progressing to St. Paul’s for high school.

Gee said the most satisfying aspect of the program has been seeing how accepted her students are by their schoolmates.

“I love watching that interaction –  I love seeing how normal they are amongst their peers, how they are embraced,” Gee said. “They are truly a part of the brotherhood. They’re not mascots. They’re not token students. They are full St. Paul’s brothers. Our guys look at them that way and treat them that way.”

Watkins agreed, noting that the program is “not a one-way street” benefitting only the students with developmental disabilities. The mother of one accomplished St. Paul’s student recently told Watkins that the thing she is most proud of, among all her son’s achievements, is his work as a CORE Pack mentor.

“It changed him,” Watkins said. “He became more empathetic, much more patient. He loved working with (CORE Pack students) and it had brought out a side of him his parents had never seen. Not that it wasn’t there before; he’d just never had the opportunity.”

Watkins said that his early concerns about how students and faculty would react to the program were unfounded. Although his and his faculty’s first impulse was to handle the CORE Pack students “with kid gloves,” they soon realized that St. Paul’s student body would step up to protect them, whether it was by helping them get to class or launching conversations. The principal proudly noted how one “loud and boisterous” CORE Pack student is greeted as “a superstar” during class changes and is a beloved member of St. Paul’s basketball team.

“With teenage boys, you just never know how they’re going to react. They just love him,” Watkins said. “It’s been the opposite (of what I thought it might be). It has been welcoming and friendly. Our traditional students have gone out of their way to include, to be a part of, to work with, to mentor, to tutor. It’s just been wonderful!”

To learn more about CORE Pack, email Trevor Watkins at trevorw@stpauls.com.

Beth Donze can be reached at bdonze@clarionherald.org.