Open doors, open hearts: St. Mary CC launches unique inclusion program for special learners

St. Mary Catholic Central sophomore Jacob Goda works on the yearbook staff with the assistance of  Katie Raymond and teacher Nancy Masuda. Goda and freshman Zach Rumschlag are students in St. Mary's St. Andre Bessette Open Door Inclusion Program, which serves students with special learning needs. (Photos by Naomi Vrazo | Archdiocese of Detroit)

Monroe Catholic high school's St. Andre Bessette Open Door Inclusion Program first of its kind in Archdiocese of Detroit

MONROE — In the spring of 2018, Steve and Aimee Goda gathered the family around their youngest son Jacob to give him a present.

The high school freshman was in the special education program with the Monroe Intermediate School District, but always wanted to be a Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central Falcon/Kestrel, just like his brother and sister.

Jacob has Down syndrome, so Catholic school never seemed like an option. But when Jacob opened the gift, he saw the green and gold St. Mary Catholic Central crest and exclaimed what he felt in his heart the entire time:

“I’m going to be a Falcon.”

Jacob Goda is a sophomore in St. Mary Catholic Central’s newly created St. Andre Bessette Open Door Inclusion Program, an effort by Monroe County’s only Catholic high school to offer a Christ-centered education to every student, regardless of any mental disability.

Steven and Aimee Goda are both SMCC alums and see the program as a gift from God.

“When he started high school, we talked about how it would be so easy if we could send him to Central like our other two children,” Aimee Goda told Detroit Catholic. “He kept telling us how he wanted to be a Falcon, like his brother and sister. But we always knew it would be difficult for him to go here.”

(Side note: St. Mary Catholic Central boys teams are the Falcons, while the girls teams are Kestrels after the 1986 merger of the all-girls St. Mary Academy and the all-boys Monroe Catholic Central.)

Jacob is now a Falcon along with freshman Zach Rumschlag, and the two students are the first cohort of St. Mary Catholic Central’s first-in-the-archdiocese inclusion program for students with intellectual disabilities.

An idea is born

The program recently received a $1,000 grant from the Catholic Foundation of Michigan, but its existence is owed to the work of St. Mary Catholic Central staff and donors who wanted to open the doors to a Catholic education to those with special learning needs. 

“We were doing strategic planning for the school, and we had families in the community — particularly families with children who have Down syndrome — who were looking for education options,” said Jason Linster, St. Mary Catholic Central principal. “We talked about creating options for when these children were in high school, and that’s when Jacob’s father, Steve, who is on the school board, said if we were serious about an inclusion program, they’d love to have Jacob go to SMCC.”

Zach Rumschlag and Jacob Goda chat with St. Mary Catholic Central principal Jason Linster in the hallway.  

Linster explained St. Mary Catholic Central already had a history of accommodating students with academic challenges, providing quiet testing environments and additional teaching and counseling resources for students with ADD/ADHD.

“My wife is Class of ’98, and we were invited to dinner with her classmates, and that’s when I met Nick Cousino, and we started talking about how he was in special education,” Linster said.

Cousino was hired to work with students with low-level academic needs as the school’s director of academic support. But for St. Mary Catholic Central to expand its inclusion program to accommodate students like Jacob and Zach, they knew they would need more support.

“We had a donor who came forward to give us seed money to start a program, and the Catholic Foundation gave us $1,000 after we started the program,” Linster said. “We used that seed money to hire Kyle McElvany as our director of the inclusion program.”

Linster and St. Mary Catholic Central President Sean Jorgenson researched other Catholic special education inclusion programs across the country, visiting the University of Notre Dame and its exceptional learner program, the program at Cardinal Stritch High School in Toledo, Ohio, and the Pope John Paul II High School in Nashville, Tenn.

St. Mary Catholic Central had McElvany design a curriculum for Jacob and Zach that would give them the chance to learn at a pace they could handle, alongside the general student population, in order to make the two students feel more part of, rather than separate from, the St. Mary Catholic Central community.

“Coming into designing the curriculum, I was coming from a public school background in teaching, going off the premise of a self-contained classroom,” McElvany said. “The vision they had is far beyond anything I could imagine, totally different with the inclusion of the program with the general student classes.”

Included with their peers

Jacob and Zach go to class with the rest of the student population for nearly half of their classes, pairing them with student peer-mentors who assist them with coursework.

McElvany said the St. Andre Bessette Open Door Inclusion Program achieves the dual purpose of providing an education that meets Jacob and Zach’s needs, but also challenges them as any other student who attends SMCC would be challenged.

Zach Rumschlag, left, works with his classmates during yearbook class. Yearbook is one of the inclusion courses in the St. Andre Bessette Open Door Inclusion Program. 

“The big difference here at St. Mary’s is having the faculty work hard to include them in the classes while trying to not make them stand out or feel different,” McElvany said. “They are made to feel like any other SMCC student. We do this by first getting a feel for the students’ strengths and weaknesses, receiving parent input and adapting their abilities to our faculty. I can’t compliment our teachers enough with helping me with their curriculum and their plans.”

McElvany works with Jacob and Zach every day in inclusion classes, curtailing lessons for them. But for other classes, such as yearbook or religion, Jacob and Zach work alongside their classmates.

McElvany and other St. Mary Catholic Central teachers say having Jacob and Zach in the classroom provides an invaluable lesson to all students — and staff — about what it means to live in a Catholic community.

“For the other students in the school, they may one day in the real world work with someone with a disability, and these classes show them how to work with an individual with other abilities,” McElvany said. “We’re teaching them how life is going to be when they graduate, that you are going to work with people who are different than you or with other personalities. It’s an incredible opportunity for our students to work with Jacob and Zach.”

For Jacob and Zach, having the opportunity to attend St. Mary Catholic Central and feel like “just another student,” means the world to them.

“Going to St. Mary’s is great because I have a lot of great teachers and friends who go to Catholic Central, and I have a lot of classes to go to and have a great time at CC,” Jacob Goda said. “We had homecoming, where we had a homecoming dance, and we had prom last year, and it was a great year for us.”

Jacob and Zach are both on the yearbook staff at St. Mary’s. Zach works with the advertising and sales team, and Jacob is the on-field photographer, covering the St. Mary Falcons/Kestrels.

“We have a lot of home football games this year, and then there is basketball season, baseball season, then football again,” Jacob said. “It was a great school year for me and my friend Zach; he’s a great guy and I know he’s wonderful.”

Jacob and Zach spend a lot time in the inclusion classroom together, but they like spending most of their time with the general student population.

“I like that this isn’t a big a school, there isn’t just one place in the school, you can walk around and stuff. I have teachers and friends who help me when I get confused on where to go,” Zach said. “At my old school, there wasn’t a lot of people. And I didn’t want to talk to the same people; I wanted to make new friends and talk with new people in the school.”

Jacob Goda is pictured with his parents, Aimee and Steve Goda. Aimee and Steve are both St. Mary's graduates, as are Jacob's two older siblings. Jacob was thrilled when he learned he was going to be a Falcon. 

A Godsend for families

For Jacob and Zach’s parents, having them feel part of the general student population and entwined into the school community was just as important as the material they learned inside the classroom.

“It’s the small things like the Christmas Spirit Week or having a Twin Day — where he would dress up like another student — and have the students and staff be so accepting of him, that makes it special,” Aimee Goda said. “Before, he wasn’t getting that in special education classrooms. If there was a spirit week at Monroe High, I wouldn’t know it was spirit week.

“He watched his brother and sister go through school here; he watched them go to dances and pep rallies, homecoming parades, and he wanted to do that when he went to high school,” Aimee Goda added. “We have this philosophy as parents, that we don’t want to just hide Jacob from the world, and when he graduates from high school, just go, ‘Here he is, world. This is our child with Down syndrome; you are going to have to live with him now.’ He is very much part of this community.”

Zach’s parents, Charlie and Barb Rumschlag, say Zach’s freshman year at St. Mary Catholic Central has been his most rewarding year academically. After suffering a traumatic brain injury when he was young, Zach has learned at a different pace than his peers. With the inclusion program, Zach learns at his own pace, but feels incorporated with the general student population.

“I was concerned when Zachary applied to St. Mary’s whether he would get in or not; we weren’t sure how he would do,” Charlie Rumschlag said. “We felt Catholic schools were the best option in our area, knowing this school would do the best job preparing Zach for life.”

Zach’s two older sisters have graduated or are attending St. Mary Catholic Central, but Zach’s parents worried he was falling behind. This fall semester they were called in to the principal office after it was clear Zach wasn’t doing well in the general student courses.

“When they called us in for the meeting, I was thinking the worst, but they explained to us the inclusion program, and I was thrilled they had this path,” Charlie Rumschlag said. “What we liked about the Catholic schools over the public schools is they were helping Zach form his moral compass. Twenty years from now, is he going to use his algebra? Maybe, but I want him to be a morally sound young man. That is more important. And that is why we felt St. Mary Catholic Central is the best fit.”

Charlie and Barb say Zach is excited to bringing homework home and is thrilled to be going to school with all the friends he’s made at St. Mary Catholic Central.

“If he was with the same group of six or seven people, he’d learn bad habits because that’s all he’d see,” Charlie Rumschlag said. “Since going to school here, his level of independence has grown, and we’ve seen it. Just the way he carries himself now and matures is amazing, and we can thank St. Mary’s and the inclusion program for that.”

A learning experience for everyone

Zach and Jacob’s parents speak volumes about how St. Mary Catholic Central has shaped and formed their sons, but teachers and students at St. Mary’s would tell you a a different story: that what St. Mary Catholic Central teaches Jacob and Zach is far outweighed by how much Jacob and Zach teach St. Mary’s.

“Jacob and Zach bring a whole new perspective to our classroom,” said Nancy Masuda, yearbook teacher and department chair at St. Mary Catholic Central. “Both of these young men are very approachable. When we are doing interviews, they get the other students to open up in the conversation and do better interviews.”

Zach Rumschlag makes an observation during yearbook class. Yearbook teacher Nancy Masuda says Zach and Jacob Goda have been exceptional additions to the St. Mary Catholic Central community. 
Yearbook teacher Nancy Masuda shows enthusiasm for the work Jacob Goda and Katie Raymond are doing together. 

Masuda said Jacob’s photography and Zach’s work with advertisements and sales have made them valuable members of the team, and they offer her classroom — and the entire school — an example of what it means to be Christ-centered.

“The first thing students realize when they work with Jacob and Zach is they are just like normal students; there aren’t a lot of differences between them. They have the same concerns, the same hopes, the same dreams like any other student,” Masuda said. 

“Jacob and Zach bring a sunshine into the classroom like no other,” Masuda continued. “Our students get a bigger view of the world because of Jacob and Zach. They see the world through their eyes, and (Jacob and Zach) make the world a better place; they make this school a better place.”

St. Mary Catholic Central sophomore Allison Pinkelman is a peer mentor in yearbook to Jacob and Zach, helping them with tasks and showing them around school. But for Allison, it’s not really an assignment or task; it’s part of being a friend.

“I’ve known Jacob for a year now and he’s my best friend,” Allison said. “We have yearbook and science class together and we do our assignments together sometimes. We talk all the time; he’s just really fun and not hard to get along with. He’s just really nice.”

Allison explains Jacob was a little nervous at the beginning of the school year — a fact many at the school now have a hard time believing given Jacob’s outgoing demeanor — but after becoming friends with Allison and her friends, he’s just another face in the St. Mary’s crowd.

“He’s a very fast learner and it’s not hard for him to understand something,” Allison said. “I’ve learned a lot from him. I don’t know how to explain it. He walks through the hallway just like a normal person, because he is a normal person, and he participates in class just like everyone else does.

“Even if he doesn’t know someone, he treats them like he’s known them for years,” Allison added. “It puts a smile on your face whenever you see him.”

Teaching tomorrow's leaders to be accepting

Linster said St. Mary Catholic Central models the peer mentor program after St. John Paul II High School in Nashville, but eventually would like to expand the program to allow students to get more one-on-one time mentoring inclusion students with a chance to earn college credits.

Linster said since the inclusion program started this year, the entire school community has reassessed what it means to be a school focused on Christ.

Jacob Goda and Katie Raymond make a "pinkie promise" in yearbook class. 

“The inclusion program prepares us for who we are as Catholic-Christians. We’re called to welcome everybody, and it makes it a lot easier to do that when the students are exposed to those with different abilities at an early age,” Linster said. “Hopefully, learning to be accepting as teenagers will lead to them being accepting as adults. Someday, Jacob will need a job; someday he will need a place to live, and hopefully, one of these students will be his boss, his landlord, a community leader who knows what great people Jacob and Zach are, and what great people those who are like Jacob and Zach are.”

Halfway through the first year of the inclusion program at St. Mary Catholic Central, already the school is looking for ways to improve its curriculum for those with special needs. 

The challenge with teaching students in the inclusion program — and all students for that matter — is to balance presenting a curriculum the students can handle, but also challenging them to be their best selves.

To that end, McElvany said, the St. Andre Bessette Open Door Inclusion Program has been more than a success, not only in showing what Jacob and Zach can learn and do as students, but what St. Mary Catholic Central can do as a school focused on forming the mind and soul of every young person who walks through the school’s doors.

“Before I was a teacher, I was a football coach, and the coach in me pushed someone to a level they might not go to on their own,” McElvany said. “With Jacob and Zach, they have proven to me they can do far more than anyone can think.

“If we look at our mission as educators, as Catholics, we know we can do great things,” McElvany said. “Watching their daily growth will surprise you, and watching the growth of our teachers and students in interacting with Jacob and Zach will surprise you. But this is what we do here. They make St. Mary’s a better school. They make us better people.”

Jacob Goda and Zach Rumschlag pose for a photo in the hallway of St. Mary Catholic Central. The two say they love the school because they get to meet new people during classes, making them feel part of the Falcon community.