By Susan Klemond, The Catholic Spirit
June 21, 2018 — One Catholic school’s “yes” to a physically disabled student has made it possible for the sixth-grader to flourish this year at minimal cost to the school, while earning its principal a national award for inclusion.
Pat Lofton, 52, principal of the Jesuits' St. Thomas More Catholic School in St. Paul, Minnesota, received the National Catholic Board on Full Inclusion’s Dandy Award May 29 for not hesitating to enroll 11-year-old Nathan Leber, who uses a wheelchair and requires some assistance because of a spinal cord-related disability.
“We can meet kids who have diverse needs, and we can do it well,” Lofton said. “But at the heart of it is love, compassion and an understanding that these kids are no different than anybody else. They may have physical or intellectual challenges, but they can be successful here, and it’s not about money.”
The boy’s mother, Lisa Datta, 48, submitted Lofton’s name for the award after her lengthy search for a Catholic school yielded many “noes” from schools that told her they lacked accessible facilities or sufficient staff.
While archdiocesan schools seek to accommodate most students, the support and help from St. Thomas More school’s staff and 225 prekindergarten through eighth-grade students are inspired by values of diversity and inclusion promoted by the Jesuit-led community. At the Catholic school, Leber has improved his grades and participates in extracurricular activities.
The National Catholic Board on Full Inclusion is a California-based nonprofit seeking full inclusion in Catholic schools for students with disabilities. The organization’s Dandy Award is given semi-annually to a person or group showing inclusivity in Catholic education without a formal system, guidance or financial incentives.
Leber has spina bifida, a birth defect in which the spinal cord doesn’t develop correctly and is subject to damage. Nerves in his legs, bowel and bladder don’t function. He requires an elevator and a wheelchair accessible bathroom, along with some additional teacher assistance.
In 2016, Datta decided to enroll him in a Catholic school because of her own experience attending Catholic schools and because she wasn’t satisfied with his progress in a Minneapolis public school, despite special needs assistance.
“I didn’t feel that many of the teachers were really invested in Nathan’s success,” said Datta, who also has a 4-year-old son and belongs to Assumption in St. Paul. “I think it came to a head when he was in fifth grade and he started losing assignments.”
Datta contacted Catholic schools and found some were unable to make their older buildings accessible. Others seemed skeptical of the burden on staff they thought Leber could present.
At St. Thomas More last spring, she met with Lofton, who was just preparing to start as principal. Datta described her situation in detail and Lofton responded immediately, “Your son will learn here, and we will learn from him.”
The school didn’t need physical modifications to accept Leber, who also hasn’t required as many of the services he received in public school, Datta said.
Jesuit Father Warren Sazama, St. Thomas More’s pastor, praised efforts to make Leber comfortable.
“I think the way the students have accepted that young man in a wheelchair was really beautiful,” he said. “They just don’t blink. They accept him, and he’s just a really happy kid who’s very much a part of the school community.”
In a previous position of associate superintendent of Milwaukee archdiocesan schools, Lofton said he saw schools embracing kids with differing needs.
“There was never a question that we can’t do this,” he said. “It was more, ‘How can we accommodate this and make this happen?’”
St. Thomas More staff have helped Leber improve writing and handwriting, and he’s getting an “A” in math, Datta said. Because of brain surgeries, Leber has organization and memory challenges, and his teachers have helped with this, she said.
Leber has made friends in his classes and on the swim team. He is independent and doesn’t want excessive attention or special treatment, Lofton said. “But the kids understand. Sometimes he has extra needs, and they’ll be there in a heartbeat to help him.”
Some perceive that Catholic schools can’t serve students with special needs, but money can be an artificial barrier, Lofton said.
According to Gayle Stoffel, associate director of Catholic education for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, “Consistent with, and as required by state and federal law, and our mission as a Church, our network of Catholic schools serve students with special needs. Generally speaking, most students can be and are accommodated.”
Lofton said he’s happy to receive the award but that it belongs to the St. Thomas More community.
“Obstacles are not really obstacles,” he said. “They are part of life’s journey. … This entire community came together to serve Nate, and we’re committed to serving kids. We want to be an inclusive Catholic community and I think we’re making great strides to do and be that.”
This article originally appeared in The Catholic Spirit and was reposted with permission.