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Immaculata Classical Academy, where kids with Down syndrome are just kids

Courtesy: Penny Michalak
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Children with special needs aren't segregated into their own classrooms. Check out the results.

Immaculata Classical Academy in Louisville, Kentucky, is an academically rigorous, classical Catholic PK-high school. That in itself, the world desperately needs. A good Catholic education is a rare thing. But this school is more than rare, it’s unique.

About 15 percent of the students there have some type of special needs, primarily Down syndrome. What made my jaw drop, though, was how these children are taught–not segregated into their own classrooms, but welcomed into the same classes their peers attend.

I had about a hundred questions, so I got in touch with Penny Michalak, who founded the school with her husband Michael.

The Michalaks’ daughter has Down syndrome. They had options for her education, but no Catholic ones. Penny told me, in her characteristically straightforward way, “My daughter Elena deserves to be able to receive a Catholic education. Christ would not deny her that. How can I?” But her vision is about so much more than just her own daughter.

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.”

The typically developing students who are lucky enough to attend this school often have no idea that the friendships they so readily form with their classmates are unusual. One little boy even went home asking his father, “Daddy, do I have Down syndrome?” His father laughed, and told him that he had many special gifts, but that Down syndrome was not one of them.

Parents who visit The Immaculata often leave in tears. One mother called to say that she had two children with Down syndrome, and was shocked by the teacher’s response: “Two? Oh, how wonderful! What a blessing!” She had never in her life had that news met with anything but disappointment or sympathy.

Sr. Caryn Crush, the preschool teacher, relayed one father’s experience. He told her, “For the first time in my life I can celebrate his birthday. I’ve never felt like I could celebrate it before.” He said, “I can finally see his beauty and realize the gift that he is, and I can celebrate him and be proud of him.”

The school’s motto is “Beauty, Truth, Goodness.” Penny told me how essential it is for every child, but especially “for the children with Down syndrome and other special needs to be immersed in all that’s good and true and beautiful.”

“Really,” she said, “they are a mirror of this truth and goodness. They are beautiful and they show the students what beauty is.”

It’s hard to found a new school, but theirs has grown from 19 students to more than 150 in just seven years. How did this happen?

Well, Penny says, “Our Lady always takes care of our needs. We need desks, and the next thing you know, a school will call and say ‘Hey, we have some extra desks. We were wondering if you could use them.’”

The school is dedicated to Our Lady, and Penny isn’t surprised Our Lady is taking care of her school. As long as they have “a lot of faith, a lot of hope, a lot of charity, and a lot of perseverance,” she laughs, they’ll be on the right track.

I had one last question. What was the school’s ultimate goal?

“What we really want to say [is] that this is possible!” Penny answers, without missing a beat. “Our goal is to be an example. We want other schools to be able to do it as well, to be able to help more and more children.”

It’s the only way that our culture can change, so that mothers carrying these tremendously vulnerable children feel like their child has a place in the world.

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