For most this is an unusual idea, but for the teachers and students at Immaculata Classical Academy it is just a way of life. At the academically rigorous Catholic school, based out of Louisville Kentucky, students from pre-kindergarten to high school are taught alongside their peers. Regardless of learning disabilities or other special needs, they are treated exactly no differently than the other students, besides for an occasional shift in coursework. The mindset that they are no different than the other children is fostered throughout the student body, allowing them to thrive in the close-knit community.
Inspired by this revolutionary concept, Anna O’Neil, a writer for Aleteia.org, corresponded with Penny Michalak, the founder of the school. In a piece entitled “Immaculata Classical Academy, where kids with Down syndrome are just kids”, she details her conversation and revelations about the Academy:
Penny spoke passionately about how 90 percent of children with Down syndrome are aborted. There are countries hoping that soon 100 percent of children with Down syndrome will never be born. Penny said simply, “We are all to blame for this.” Often the reason a mother might abort, she explained, is out of fear — fear that life with a child with Down syndrome would be too hard, that she would have no help, and that the child would not be welcomed by the world. So the Michalaks founded a place which, as the school’s site says, would encourage parents “to say yes to the great joy and adventure of raising a child with Down syndrome.”
I wanted to know how this unique approach worked in practice. Were the school’s teachers Special Needs certified? The answer: The teachers worked closely with a doctor certified in that area, and had on staff a Special Needs Coordinator, who has a Master’s Degree in Special Ed, and extensive experience, but more importantly, they were qualified by their “hearts full of love,” and by their tremendous zeal.
The teachers see their work as a vocation, not just a job, which makes all the difference. As to the students’ varying degrees of intellectual capacity, that is easily solved. Each grade takes its subjects at the same time. So if a student is at a different grade level, say, in math, nobody’s schedule changes.
“What effect does this arrangement have on the typically developing kids?” I asked.
“These special children” says Penny, are “powerhouses of love. They teach the heart.” I am reminded of the website’s explanation: “The incorporation of children with special needs into the standard classroom well serves not only these students but also the typical student who may otherwise miss out on the chance to interact with peers who have special needs and share in and experience their radiating joy. … We see Down syndrome as a gift to be celebrated. [These children] remind us of the great value and dignity of each human life.”