Rams Program student Nate Trevino and his peer mentor Rickey White take a break from class. The Rams Program brings students with exceptional needs to Central Catholic.
Rams Program student Nate Trevino and his peer mentor Rickey White take a break from class. The Rams Program brings students with exceptional needs to Central Catholic.
Nate Trevino spent his primary and middle school years at public schools in Portland. Parents with a Down syndrome child like Nate usually don’t have much choice. But during Nate’s eighth grade year, a member of All Saints Parish told his mother about a new program at Central Catholic High School and suggested she check it out. That’s what Sandy St. Clair did.

Asked how Nate — now in his sophomore year — is doing, St. Clair is emphatic. “He is a different kid.” Pausing for emphasis, she adds, “That… kid… came… alive.”

Nate is enrolled in Central’s Rams Program. It’s unique in Oregon, but part of an archdiocesan drive to accept and educate students with learning difficulties — an effort that has shown measurable progress over the last two years.

The archdiocese has tracked the growing number of students with exceptional needs. In 2010 the number of elementary and high school students in this category was 791. Five years later that number more than doubled to 1,639. The next year it was up to 1,875.

Jeannie Ray-Timoney, the archdiocese’s associate superintendent of Catholic schools, feels Catholic schools have something special to give to these children. “I think that we can offer families a close community… where teachers are there because it’s a vocation. The families come because they want that Catholic culture,” Ray-Timoney said. “I think when we communicate and we support one another, we have that atmosphere where everybody is working together to help each child succeed.”

In 2014, the archdiocese put together a task force to take a look at how it was doing with special education. In May 2016, the archdiocese released a strategic plan that established expectations for all 50 schools for the coming school year. It also issued a 100-page guideline booklet. Training and hiring expectations were set. Every school now has a designated point person, someone who can inform parents about opportunities for their children. Every school has taken advantage of professional development training.

Eight years ago, Central Catholic started to identify students already enrolled who had a range of learning disabilities. About a dozen students were identified the first year and were given additional classes that gave them more practice and direction in required subjects. As students progress from year to year, the help they get evolves with their individual needs. When they graduate, they are awarded a traditional diploma.

The Rams Program students graduate with a modified diploma that represents a different set of standards. On its website, Central Catholic says, “The primary goal of the Rams Program is to provide an inclusive Catholic education to high school age students with developmental and intellectual disabilities.”

Nate has the greatest degree of disability of the five students in the program, but each attends classes with the rest of the population every day. Program students are paired with a peer mentor — a student volunteer who sits with them in every class. They may help with a class assignment, work on an individualized task or just join the student for a walk while the rest of the class moves on.

Other schools continue to expand and adapt their own programs. Thanks to input from parents and teachers, La Salle Prep has shifted its Signum Fidei (Signs of Faith) Pathway program from a cohort-oriented system that tended to keep special needs students together to one that allows students to take regular classes if they qualify academically. The result is greater integration with the rest of the student body.

Elementary schools are beginning programs or, like Portland’s Holy Family School, building on years of experience. Marty Mitchoff is a sixth-grader at Holy Family. His mother Amy says he’s on the autism spectrum and struggles with a speech disorder.

When Marty started kindergarten, Amy helped teach his classmates how best to interact with him. She has come back every year to repeat that message. One of the main reasons Mitchoff and her husband decided on Holy Family was the integration Marty would experience with the student body. She says that at the public schools she visited, “he would only spend about 25 percent of the time in a typical classroom.” The rest of the time he’d be with other special needs students.

That integration is not only good for Marty, it benefits everyone, according to Liz Richard, Holy Family’s learning specialist. “At the heart of it, this is a social justice issue,” Richard says. “We’re called to see the dignity in everybody and see Jesus in everyone.”

The students at Holy Family seem to get that. Richard says the other kids watch out for their classmates and “they learn to help, but not too much… And they learn that one might be an expert on trains or another can draw really well.”

On a Friday night, senior Rickey White caught a pass during a fake punt play that helped seal Central Catholic’s victory over Barlow. The next Monday morning, the senior was in a biology class on a different mission. He was a peer mentor for Nate Trevino.

Rickey says Nate has been a great addition to Central, “because Nate is a really positive dude. And for the last two years working with Nate… has really taught me a lot about myself… When I see Nate being happy and high-fivin’ everyone, it shows me that you should take every moment of life and be thankful for it.”