Christie Horton knows what it’s like to be both a parent and a teacher of a child on the autism spectrum.
She says "making Catholic schools more inclusive is very personal to me." Christie has been principal of St. John the Evangelist School in Carmichael since 2017, after having taught there since 2008.
When her son, Isaac, was diagnosed with autism, she and her husband Nick went through the public school assessment process and having seen the offer, knew she didn’t want Isaac excluded from the Catholic school and community experience. Deep inside, she held great fondness for her fifth through eighth grade years at Holy Family School in Citrus Heights and her four years at (the former) Loretto High School in Sacramento. It seemed only natural that Isaac, as the oldest of her three sons, would attend school at St. John Evangelist with Jack, now 9, and Joe, now 7.
So she asked her principal at the time, Tosha Tillotson, if Isaac might be welcomed to attend preschool there. Tosha said yes. He had a full-time aide provided by the Hortons’ medical insurance who assisted teachers with Isaac’s behavioral needs. Isaac progressed through transitional kindergarten, kindergarten and is now 11 and in fifth grade, and is independently learning with some assistance.
“I’ve always approached this as a year-by-year thing, but this has become his home and it was all because Tosha didn’t hesitate to say yes,” Christie says. “I know how parents feel in that situation and that they have the dream of their child attending Catholic school. Just like me, it was the way they were raised and had the same childhood experiences and nostalgia. This shouldn’t be because I work here and can get Isaac in. It should be an opportunity that any family who has a child who has some special needs or needs some extra attention should feel welcome to enroll here.
“My passion for inclusive education comes from my personal experience,” Christie emphasizes. “One thing I’ve found out – and it breaks your heart if you’ve had to go through it – is I had an ‘elevator pitch’ of 30 seconds prepared for Isaac, with all of the special needs he had going on but his great qualities too. It’s like trying to keep someone on board with accepting your child. I find parents are very nervous and give me an elevator pitch for their child, and that’s not how it should be. No parents should have to feel that they have to sell me in 30 seconds on finding their child’s positive qualities.”
Christie presides over 280 students at St. John the Evangelist, from preschool through eighth grade. The school has 110 students in its resource program, who either have a learning disability, 35 to 40 students with an actual diagnosis, or students who are “just a little behind and they need some one on one small group work, which is pretty common,” she notes. The school has some students who have classroom aides the entire school day who are provided by their parents’ health insurance company.
There are many simple accommodations teachers can provide to special needs students that are reasonable and not overwhelming, Christie notes. “The more experience you gain with these kids, the empowered you feel as a teacher. So if a child comes to a teacher in two or three years later, the teacher says I have experience with autism and dyslexia or dyscalculia, and these are things I’ve tried in the past and they can give it a shot. We don’t lower the academic bar here, we make the bar attainable to students who have different needs.”
St. John the Evangelist is one of several schools in the diocese who have partnered with the National Catholic Board on Full Inclusion, a nonprofit based in Davis, the organization notes that inclusive education brings all students together in one classroom and community, regardless of their strengths or weaknesses in any area, and seeks to maximize the potential of all students. According to NCBFI:
- Inclusion is “an effort to make sure that diverse learners – those with disabilities, different languages and cultures, different homes and family lives, different interests and ways of learning – are exposed to teaching strategies that reach them as individual learners”;
- Inclusive schools “ask teachers to provide appropriate individual supports and services to all students without the stigmatization that comes with separation”;
- Teachers in inclusive classrooms “vary their styles to enhance learning for all students.”
NCBFI was founded in part by Beth and John Foraker, who in 2005, with the blessing of then pastor, Father Dan Looney, and then school principal, Mary Kay Bolz, welcomed the Forakers’ son Patrick, to begin kindergarten at St. James School in Davis. He was the first student in his school and the first in the Diocese of Sacramento with Down Syndrome to be fully included. NCBFI was established nearly 15 years later to advocate for families and support teachers to ensure more inclusive practices in Catholic schools.
Christie has also partnered St. John the Evangelist School with the Foundation for Inclusive Religious Education (FIRE) in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, which helps schools create environments of learning where students with special needs learn and thrive alongside their typically developing peers. She arranged substitute teachers for her teachers at school in March 2021 so all of them could attend a two-day virtual conference put on by FIRE to gain further education on teaching children with special needs.
Christie always encourages parents to have their child with disabilities assessed by the public school district with a meeting for an Individualized Education Plan. “They need to get the full picture of what they would receive if they attended public school,” she says. “I look at that and tell them what I can provide because we are limited. I put those side by side and invite them to go home and discuss it as parents and as a family. I say we want your child here, but I want to give them an honest and open comparison of what we can provide.
“I don’t have parents leave after that, as they see the value of their child being in a mainstreamed environment and a small school where we know them from the time they are age 3 to 14. I don’t want to ever mislead a parent into thinking that we are a full special education program.”
Christie is proud of her K-8 mentor program at the school, which is one of only a few on the West Coast. There are 70 student mentors in grades 1 through 8 who assist the students in the resource program. Some of the mentors are students who have learning disabilities and “they feel it is a strength of theirs to relate to their peers,” she says.
The mentors meet monthly and participated in a summer training in 2021, to learn about different types of physical and developmental disabilities and differences.
“It’s created a culture here of belonging,” Christie says, obviously pleased with the results. “The best part is that in a school of 280 kids, I have 70 who right off the bat jumped up to be leaders and to be accepting of all people. Mentors are very welcoming to new students. If there are students in their class who are struggling or they don’t answer a question correctly, they don’t laugh at them, and they help them. They make sure that no student is left without a partner and that kids are not eating lunch alone.”
Christie says Catholic schools are doing more to promote inclusive education. “Everybody has their niche or their passion and where their teachers’ strengths lie,” she concludes. “The best thing that other Catholic schools can do is network with each other and share ideas on how to support incoming students who have special needs, or current students who are maybe showing signs of disability or some of the symptoms, and figure out how to support them with all of the expertise that so many Catholic school personnel in the diocese already have.
“The very first step is saying yes.”
About Catholic schools in the Diocese of Sacramento at www.scd.org/schools.
(Header photo: Christie Horton, right, talks to student mentors at St. John the Evangelist School in Carmichael.)