Growing up, my parents instilled in my three brothers and me that our Catholic faith was not what you do on Sundays, it's who you are. It is the constant celebration of the value of goodness, and this has had a profound influence on the way I think, behave and act.
Throughout my career at the United Way, the NYS Board of Regents and teaching, I was faced with the issues of fairness, equity and opportunity. Those same issues are still my focus as we advocate for inclusive education within the Diocese of Buffalo. Inclusive education is based on the sacred covenant that every child and family is valued equally and deserves the same opportunities and experiences.
In May of 2015, I accepted the appointment from Bishop Richard J. Malone to the Catholic Schools Advisory Council. Around this same time, I was becoming familiar with FICE, the Foundation for Inclusive Catholic Education. This organization's mission is to support families, educators and schools with the advocacy, knowledge and resources necessary to help students with special needs experience the spiritual and academic richness of a Catholic education in an inclusive environment.
In November 2015, the NYS Education Department released its Blueprint for Improved Results for Students with Disabilities. Over the course of these past two years, there has been a great deal of collaboration and progress made for meeting the needs of children with disabilities in all our schools.
The Children's Guild, the Tower Foundation, and the Oishei Foundation sponsored a Summit on Special Education entitled "From Birth to Work." Catholic school leaders were invited to attend along with public schools, community agencies, families and higher education officials. As a result of this summit, recommendations for improving transition services, family engagement, teacher preparation and leadership training are currently being considered by NYSED.
Through the collaboration of FICE and the Buffalo Diocese, along with support services from the public school districts and NYS Education Department, educational opportunities for children and their parents are being enhanced.
We are fortunate to have Bishop Malone, as well as Sister Carol Cimino, SSJ, superintendent of schools, as strong advocates for inclusion. Catholic schools across our diocese are opening their doors to families who have children with mild to significant disabilities. Teachers and administrators are participating in professional development opportunities specific to inclusion. The STREAM program has enhanced education for all students, especially those with unique learning challenges. We are seeing that our Catholic school teachers, with ongoing professional development, are empowered to provide meaningful learning opportunities for children with diverse cognitive and physical abilities. These teachers and administrators are building inclusive environments in which children can live their Catholic faith by modeling Christ's love for one another.
I am honored and privileged to work with a diocese that is motivated to ensure that students with disabilities can benefit from high quality instruction, based on traditional Catholic social teaching. The themes regarding the dignity of persons, the right to full participation, and the responsibility to seek the common good are what we are all called upon to do as Catholics. While fairness, equity and opportunity will continue to be issues that we must address throughout our lives and our world, I am greatly inspired by the progress that has been made to alleviate these issues for children with special needs and their families. The celebration of the value of goodness is happening every day in our Catholic schools through inclusion where children learn academics, kindness, empathy and acceptance for one another.
Progress notwithstanding, there are still significant challenges to be overcome in terms of making inclusive education not only possible, but the norm, in our Catholic schools. We must continue with inclusive training, advocacy and cooperation with the public schools.
Please show your support for FICE by attending the fourth-annual Taking Flight Dinner on Thursday, March 8 from 6-9 p.m. at the Millennium Hotel in Cheektowaga. Individual tickets are $50 and can be purchased at www.fice-program.org.