A Place for Belonging
Camille Jowanna’s brother had special needs, and years ago, when her mother tried to find a Catholic school for him to attend, no one would accept him.
Now years later, as principal of Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High School (BMCHS), she started an Exceptional Student Education Program to accommodate students with unique potentials.
“It is our duty as Catholics to include everyone,” said Jowanna. “The Inclusion Program is not just about academics. The students are included in everything. Some participate in cheerleading and play sports. They can meet the criteria to join performing arts, clubs, honor societies, and other extracurriculars. It is full high school immersion.”
Raymond Tetschner, who has Down Syndrome, graduated from the BMCHS Inclusion Program earlier this year. His parents are grateful for the school’s vision to develop a program that helps children with special needs to excel.
“The principal, Mrs. Jowanna, immediately saw Raymond for who he is, and the potential he has. She immediately said yes to including him, and recognized how perfect Raymond is, created in God’s own vision, and how he-like everyone-deserves access to a Catholic schooling,” said Michelle Tetschner.
Michelle and her husband Stacy are advocating for children with special needs to be more accepted and included in our culture.
They authored the book, Fully Included - Stories to Inspire Inclusion, which includes stories of Catholic parents and Catholic principals.
“Children with Down syndrome or other learning abilities are the same, they just want to be loved, have friends and a place to belong,” said Michelle.
“We have gathered inspiring stories from families, teachers, educators and even principals who believe in our children. They understand that all children have strengths and talents and that everyone is capable of learning,” she added.
The ESE Inclusion Program at BMCHS assists students with learning challenges, providing a safe and spiritual academic environment in which every student can receive an excellent Catholic secondary education in a conventional high school setting. With ESE teachers and an ESE para-professional on staff, the ESE Inclusion Program at BMCHS extends accommodations and modifications each individual ESE student may need. In fact, according to BMCHS records, “in 2018-2019, BMCHS served 26 ESE students; in 2019-2020, 44 ESE students were served; and in 2020-2021, 71 students were served.”
The principal is passionate about the program and even becomes emotional when reflecting on the impact it is having.
“I had to make the intentions of parents of students with special needs known. The diocese and the administration of Bishop McLaughlin were open to hosting special programming for learning disabilities, and we were the first Catholic high school to do so, and the only one in Florida with such a program at the time. Other Catholic high schools are now following suit, and in past few years, school leaders have visited to see the program themselves,” Jowanna said.
The school joins the growing number of Catholic schools around the country starting to open their doors to students with exceptional abilities. There are currently over 200 schools’ country-wide doing inclusion in varying degrees and numbers.
To learn more about the ESE Inclusion Program at Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High School, contact Johnnathan Combs, the Assistant Principal and Director of ESE at BMCHS, or Melissa Hyppolite, Director of Enrollment at BMCHS, or visit the school website here.