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North Hills Monthly

St. Anthony School Programs Promote Inclusive Educational Environment

Jul 30, 2014 11:13AM ● By Jill Cueni Cohen
With autism spectrum disabilities on the rise, more of our nation’s children will be exposed to people who have special challenges in life. At the same time, more children will have to learn to thrive in society despite enduring such challenges.

St. Anthony School Programs has found a way to give Catholic and non-Catholic school students an educated perspective on their peers who struggle with intellectual disabilities, while at the same time helping students with special needs attain the same opportunities, including college and meaningful employment. A Catholic-based inclusive educational environment for children ages 5 to 21 who have Down syndrome, autism and other intellectual disabilities, the program has a 60-year history of providing students with the opportunity to learn in a safe, loving environment while preparing them for the future.

According to Executive Director Mark Sieg, the program’s goal is to help students become as independent as possible. In fact, the employment rate of St. Anthony graduates is an impressive 93 percent. “We’ve had 118 graduates in our program over the years,” he said, “and most of them now hold at least part-time employment. They’re doing something; they’re working.”

Originally called St. Anthony School for Exceptional Children, the program transformed in 1992 when it introduced its inclusive teaching model into nine elementary schools in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Since then, the program has expanded to include students with a wider range of intellectual disabilities/autism and spans K-12 and beyond.

“We have a 3-to-1 ratio of student to staff, which is one of the biggest benefits, according to feedback from parents,” explained Sieg, noting that the St. Anthony Elementary School Program provides a safe environment for students to learn alongside their peers while still getting individualized attention.

In the North Hills, 13 St. Anthony’s students are currently enrolled at St. Mary of the Assumption Elementary School in Glenshaw. “This is one of our most popular schools, and we have a waiting list,” said Sieg, adding that in the near future, they will begin offering a program at Bishop Wuerl Catholic High School in Cranberry.

After graduating from high school, students may attend St. Anthony’s Post-Secondary Program, which is based at Duquesne University—with training sites at the University of Pittsburgh and Carlow University. Sieg notes that this is a unique concept. “Our Duquesne program is the only one of its kind in the country,” he said, adding that the ability to continue through grade school, high school, college and a career is huge for these kids. “We also have an apartment in Squirrel Hill where young adults can live while they work on getting a job, so that they may grow and become active and contributing members of society.”

According to Jerry Gaughan, executive director of St. Anthony Kids Education Fund, the tuition-based program receives no state funding. “The cost for each student is approximately $17,000, but our families are charged roughly 30 percent of that,” he explained. “Scholarship funding is important, because students with disabilities need to get that education. However, the cost is often a challenge for families with special needs kids, and we’re always looking for people to step up and help.”

“It’s about giving our students with disabilities the chance to experience everything they can in life,” said Sieg, adding that it’s also about educating others. “Our kids who have disabilities and their wonderful teachers can help people learn about themselves and appreciate what they have in life. And when they get older, those kids will not be intimidated by kids with disabilities. Their hearts will be more open, and they will give them a chance, which is what we’re looking for. It goes both ways.”

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