Home Education and Careers Mind-blowing! Unbelievable Catholic Education Program Prioritizes Inclusivity & Student-Centered Approach

Mind-blowing! Unbelievable Catholic Education Program Prioritizes Inclusivity & Student-Centered Approach

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Mind-blowing! Unbelievable Catholic Education Program Prioritizes Inclusivity & Student-Centered Approach

Creating Lifelong Friendships: The Power of Peer Mentoring

“Parents are so grateful for those peer mentors, who share that while they are helping their classmates, they are also receiving the gift of friendship and a deeper appreciation and respect for life,” she added.

In the classrooms of Erin Thielman, a science teacher and mother of three at BI, the beauty of these friendships is evident every day.

“As a mother to a special-needs child and a teacher to special-needs students, nothing makes my heart soar more than seeing traditional students engaging with their special-needs peers,” she said. “God’s hand is at work when 14- to 18-year-olds are helping their peers, joking with them, and engaging with them in all forms. When traditional students buddy up with special-needs students, they are imitating Christ in their service to others.”

Adam Bigbee, the dean of exceptional learning at St. Paul VI High School, also recognizes the power of peer mentoring and the friendships it creates.

“I’ve seen some of the most beautiful friendships develop from this,” he said.

Peer mentors often enter the program with the intention of helping the Options students, but they come out with so much more. It’s a beautiful transformation to witness.

Jessica Rutherford learns how to find things in the library. Credit: Eileen Curren
Jessica Rutherford learns how to find things in the library. Credit: Eileen Curren

St. Paul VI High School is about to celebrate its 25th anniversary of having the Options Program, which currently has 16 students. The school prides itself on the level of acceptance and genuine relationships formed among students.

Bigbee recalls the story of a transfer student who was welcomed with open arms by fellow students within the first two weeks of classes.

“It’s not about lifting up an Options student just because they’re different,” he explained. “We’ve come a long way in how we treat and view people with intellectual disabilities. It’s about acceptance and fostering real relationships.”

The Options students are fully integrated into the school, participating in both academic and extracurricular activities. They join the pep band, take part in theater productions, attend football games, and even compete in the Special Olympics, where they receive enthusiastic support from their classmates.

While there are challenges along the way, Bigbee emphasizes that the moments of celebration far outweigh the tough times.

Leading the Way

So why should Catholics take the lead in creating programs like this?

“If we are all truly created in the image and likeness of God, and we’re all beautiful in His eyes, who else should lead the way than people of faith?” Bigbee asked.

As people of faith committed to living the Gospel message, Catholics understand the inherent value and dignity of every individual. By creating programs that foster inclusion and friendship, they demonstrate their love for Jesus and their commitment to treating all people with respect and compassion.

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