High school for special-needs youth plans to open in August

An online Catholic high school specifically for students with special needs is planning to open a physical school in August — if it can raise the money.

Founded in 2011, Veritas Christi Catholic High School is trying to raise $100,000 — the cost of the first year’s rent — in order to sign a three-year lease to the building located in the greater Ann Arbor, Michigan, area.

Veritas Christi is unique “because it is specifically designed, in every way, for children with special needs — down to the paint on the walls, the furniture, and of course, the curriculum,” said Richard Nye, co-founder and chairman of the board of directors for Veritas Christi.

Nye noted that there are other Catholic schools for children with special needs, but frequently they are focused on only the deaf or the blind, and many Catholic schools may only have a department or curriculum or resource room at most.

“Every phase of our curriculum, we’re making sure, to the best of our ability and through research, that we are doing the best for our students educationally and spiritually.”

Long overdue

Veritas Christi is committed to its Catholic identity, Nye said.

“We feel that our kids deserve a school identified with the Catholic Church and Catholic Faith. We believe that they are worthy of every opportunity that other Catholic students have.”

Lisa Williams, a Catholic mother with two special-needs teens, feels that when church and school are not integrated, a disconnect can happen.

“The public schools do the best that they can with what they have. It’s just that they cannot give what they do not have,” Williams said. They fall short of what “the most important things are, which is your soul and your moral training. That you become what God intended you to be.”

“I really want to see Veritas Christi open their doors. It is something, in principle, that needs to be done. It is way, way, way overdue,” she said.

Due to the age of her children and their current educational paths, Williams does not know if attending Veritas Christi will be in her children’s futures.

But “there’s a great need here, and not just for us,” she said. “There are so many families that have been ignored or neglected. It is so egregious that this need has not been addressed” by the Church.

Their family did a mix of home schooling and private schooling over the years, but Williams said her children expressed a preference for the traditional school setting. Even though she is a teacher, Williams had no training in special education and really wanted them to get “the most out of their education.” She was frustrated when she could not provide that for them.

“We were so excited when we found the school,” she said.

According to Williams, the diocesan Catholic schools tried their best but weren’t equipped to meet the particular needs their family faced.

“For whatever reason,” Williams said, “there’s been this focus on the best and the brightest” and while that is commendable, she said, this other population of students can often be overlooked.

“It takes vision, it takes commitment, it takes what Veritas has,” she added.

From Massachusetts, Mary Lou Gallante said she had been “searching and searching and searching for a school” to which to send her two boys with Down syndrome.

“Our Church seems to have forgotten these children. And this seems like the first positive step that has been taken in a long time,” Gallante said. “I know a few other children that have Down syndrome, and of the few that I know, their hearts are so pure and so ready for grace and for God that we should give them as much education in the Faith as we can. A school like that would be a treasure. If I could move there tomorrow, I would be there — in a heartbeat.”

Case-by-case admittance

Nye said that they have been receiving phone calls and messages from parents like Gallante across the United States asking for more information about Veritas Christi and that many of them are disappointed when they learn that there is no physical school yet. Families have expressed a willingness to move to enroll their children, or drive 40 miles one way to bring them to school there every day.

As an independent, private Catholic school, Veritas Christi does not receive any funding from a Catholic diocese and is completely supported through tuition and donations. Acceptance into Veritas Christi is on a case-by-case basis, Nye said, as they do not want to overpromise on what they can do for a student when families have already experienced so much frustration and disappointment.

In order to accommodate the financial needs of each individual family, the school’s tuition is on a sliding scale.

Nye said that Veritas Christi will try its best to reach out to as many of the 13 different categories of special education as they can.

“In no way are we trying to isolate these students,” said Nye. “I’ve had special-needs kids in classes in the general population. As a teacher, it is extremely difficult. Educationally speaking, spiritually speaking, that they will feel welcome, that they will not be bullied.”

This is critically important to parents.

“My kids are a little bit more vulnerable,” Williams said, “and I can’t risk everything my husband and I have built to be negated or destroyed. The most important thing to us is their character and their souls. And obviously that they can be happy, healthy and holy.”

Starting from scratch

Nye said that in opening the school, they have had to “reinvent the wheel” in many ways, including nearly writing their own theology curriculum, in order to teach the Faith in a way that will best serve the educational needs of their students. Class sizes will be small, with just eight to 10 students. And each teacher, a practicing Catholic with a special education certification, also will also have an aide.

The school offers two tracks for earning the high school diploma: one to prepare students who intend to continue their education at a college or university afterward, and one for students who wish to enter the workforce after graduating.

“We’re not asking anyone to give huge amounts of money, but we’re hoping that people that believe in our mission, believe in what we’re doing, will reach out to us to help us get into this building,” Nye said.

“I think it’s important for people to know that we feel blessed that this mission has been placed on our hearts, that we will do everything in our power to accomplish this mission. And we believe that God will accomplish the goal of opening the school in this building.”

Hannah M. Brockhaus writes from Missouri.