February 22, 2013

Rare program transforms the lives and perspectives of Catholic high school students

The smiles show the friendship of Allison Kelly, Charlie Springman and David Saling, a friendship that developed from their involvement in a rare Catholic high school program at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

The smiles show the friendship of Allison Kelly, Charlie Springman and David Saling, a friendship that developed from their involvement in a rare Catholic high school program at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

If there is lasting magic about the high school years, it usually appears in the form of relationships—as strangers are transformed into close friends who understand each other, support each other and care about each other through the good times and the tough times.

Sometimes, the magic lasts through graduation. Other times, it continues for years. Or even a lifetime.

Then there are the times it creates moments that lead to tears of joy.

One of those emotional moments is happening right now for Michelle Roberts as she listens to Charlie Springman, Allison Kelly and David Saling talk about the way their friendship has grown during the past four years.

“That’s where the real magic happens,” a tearful Roberts says as she motions toward the three students at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis.

A teacher at the school, Roberts introduced the three students to each other four years ago through a program that is unique in the archdiocese and rare among Catholic high schools across the country.

Roberts coordinates Roncalli’s Certificate of Completion Program, an individualized program that allows students with intellectual disabilities to have a Catholic high school experience.

Geared toward students who aren’t able to earn a traditional high school diploma, the program provides inclusive general education classes, instruction in life skills for independence in adulthood, and a work/study component that offers job experience and preparation for employment in the future.

Still, the best part of the program may be the peer mentoring relationships that connect students in the Certificate of Completion Program with students who are working toward a high school diploma.

It’s where Charlie, Allison and David have formed a friendship that has touched and changed all of their lives.

‘Here’s someone who can use a friend’

To know how far Charlie Springman has come in his four years at Roncalli, it helps to know where he started when he entered the school as a freshman in the Certificate of Completion Program in the fall of 2009.

Often overwhelmed by his new surroundings, Charlie was hesitant to look anyone in the eyes or let people get near him. He resisted going to school Masses in the gym because he didn’t like the crowd, the noise and the lights.

Charlie’s freshman year was also Roberts’ first year of implementing the Certificate of Completion Program at Roncalli. To help Charlie and the other students in the program, Roberts talked to the entire freshman class during its orientation, stressing the peer mentoring part of the program—and the power that students have as peers. She also looked for students who had an ease about them and an interest in eventually being friends with her students.

Enter David Saling, an outgoing guy whose time at Roncalli has led him to be one of the four presidents of the school’s student council in his senior year. He is also involved in the school’s musicals and Comedy Sportz program.

“My mom and Mrs. Roberts know each other,” David recalls. “I’ve always been interested in helping people with special needs. I have a couple of cousins and I work with someone who has special needs. Mrs. Roberts asked me to sit with Charlie at Mass. I thought, ‘Here’s someone who can use a friend right now.’ I wanted to make it happen.”

The connection wasn’t an immediate success. Besides avoiding Masses in the gym, Charlie didn’t look at David in the hall when David said hello to him. David acknowledges that he became frustrated. Roberts stressed patience.

“The friendships I’m working on in freshman year, I’m hoping they will flourish in junior and senior year,” Roberts says.

David stayed involved. So did Allison Kelly. During her freshman year, she sat next to Charlie in one of their classes. Allison has her own challenges as a student because of dyslexia and attention deficit disorder, but she is able to pursue a high school diploma. A member of the school’s choir, she also has a welcoming smile and a friendly personality. Still, she couldn’t reach Charlie.

“I felt I was doing everything wrong,” Allison says. “I wasn’t connecting with him. It made me think, ‘Do I really want to be a special ed teacher?’ ”

Roberts kept working with Charlie, one of five students in the program this year. She also kept working with David, Allison and the other peer mentors. She knew the difference they eventually would make because she has seen what happens when no one steps forward to make a difference.

“I’m a Catholic school girl,” says Roberts, a 1987 graduate of Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis. “We had a neighbor growing up who was so big, and kids were so mean to him. I hated that, and it stuck with me. I knew I wanted to teach. It seemed like my skills would work well in special education. In college, I worked at a group home for adults with disabilities. It just made me feel good.”

She wants the same feeling for Charlie and the other students in the program.

“I want all people with disabilities to have the respect they’ve earned by simply being born,” she says. “It goes back to ‘Respect life.’ We don’t need to pity these students because they’re not going to college. We don’t need to patronize them. We want to be open to them.”

Allison found one of her best opportunities to be open to Charlie during a football game at Roncalli.

‘People can surprise you’

Allison is president of a group at Roncalli called the Band Aides, a group that assists the school band during performances by helping them with their instruments during halftime and bringing them water during breaks. At one of the first football games in the fall of 2011, she realized that the group needed more help. She also thought, “Charlie can do this.”

She approached Mrs. Roberts first. When she received the teacher’s support, Allison talked to Charlie. He thought about the crowd, the noise and the lights, and he hesitated. Allison persisted. Charlie finally agreed to give it a try.

“It was kind of scary,” Charlie recalls. But he worked alongside Allison. Then he decided to stay and watch the game even as the crowd roared around him.

Asked to describe his feeling at the end of the game, Charlie smiles and says, “Not too shabby.”

Allison smiles, too.

“I’m seeing total growth from freshman year up to now,” Allison says about Charlie. “Before finals [in December, 2012], Charlie asked me to go to a basketball game with him. We sat together. He starts conversations with me now. He loves NASCAR, going to the beach and pizza.”

David also notices the difference.

“In freshman year, he’d keep his head down when I talked to him in the hall,” David says. “In sophomore year, he’d say ‘Hi’ with his head down. In junior year, it was ‘Hi, David.’ Now in senior year, he says, ‘Hi, David,’ and he looks me in the eye.”

Allison and David have also noticed changes in themselves.

“I’ve become more patient with people,” David says. “When I first sat with Charlie in freshman year, I was getting frustrated. I didn’t think I was helping him. It’s [180 degrees different] now. It’s taught me to take my time with people and get to know them. It’s taught me that people can surprise you. I didn’t think Charlie would be doing the things he’s doing now.”

Allison nods in agreement and adds, “This has really opened my eyes to special needs. Being a special needs student myself, it’s taught me to love and care in a different way. I didn’t know I could love and care in the way I do.”

As David and Allison share their thoughts, Roberts becomes overwhelmed with emotion, and the tears flow down her face. It’s the moment when she also says, “They’re doing the work for me in a way that’s real and relevant. That’s where the real magic happens.”

After she wipes away the tears, Roberts talks about the other parts of Charlie’s education—learning how to do laundry, shop at a grocery store, prepare healthy meals, get ready for job interviews and handle situations at work. She listens as Charlie describes his current job.

“I go to Dairy Queen to work there,” he says. “I clean the tables, take out the trash.”

Roberts nods and notes, “My goal is to support my students in their efforts to maximize their independence and their participation in the world around them—to give them the skills they need whether it’s academic, social or work-related. I also want to give them an understanding of who they are. They have a voice. They have opinions.”

They also have the ability to melt her heart with a smile. Charlie is flashing one of those smiles now. The freshman who didn’t want people near him, who always kept his eyes down, is now sandwiched between two of his closest friends, smiling directly at a camera that tries to capture the moment forever.

“It feels like we’re on the right track,” Roberts says. “It’s why I’m here. The academics are important. Getting Charlie a job is important. But seeing students who struggle to make connections, and then see them make connections, I love that. It makes what we’re doing worth it.” †

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