Fitting in no big deal at Bishop England Students with disabilities attend regular classes, college through program

Bishop England student Christina Rivera (center) walks down the hall as classes change on the Wednesday before Easter break.

It’s fifth period before lunch on the last day of school before Easter break in Ms. Boudreaux’s English class.

Let’s be honest. No one really wants to be here.

Five students are hunched over a table, taking turns idly reading out loud from an abridged version of “Little Women.” They’re on the last page of chapter 12 with only 30 minutes of class to go. Chase Saulisbury, a handsome senior on the football team, helps the girl next to him, Lilly Colwell, sound out her syllables. He traces his finger along every line in her book.

“SO...CIE...IETY,” he whispers. She mumbles the word right back.

Saulisbury doesn’t have a disability, but Colwell does, as do three other students in the class. At Bishop England High School on Daniel Island, there aren’t any teacher’s aides for students with disabilities. There is no “special education” either. In fact, their teacher, Martine Boudreaux, director of the school’s innovative Options Programs for students with disabilities, hates that word. “Education is education,” she says. “Everybody learns.”

So here, every student with a disability attends regular classes, like chemistry, Spanish and world history, alongside their typically developing peers. Their curriculum is specially modified to their level and ability. And most of them even go off to college when they graduate.

For classes like pre-algebra and English, which may require more time and assistance, students with disabilities work closely with peer mentors to help them digest the material. And for those students, it’s a unique opportunity they likely wouldn’t have anywhere else.

Yearly tuition at Bishop England is $8,500 for parishioners and $12,000 for non-church members.

All but one of the eight students currently enrolled in the Options Program have received scholarships from the Charleston-based St. Thomas-Aquinas Scholarship Funding Organization.

The scholarships, which cover 90 percent of tuition, were made possible through the Educational Credit for Exceptional Needs Children program.

Originally authorized by the Legislature in 2013, the program allows taxpayers to make donations to designated charitable nonprofits, like St. Thomas-Aquinas, which then awards grants to students with disabilities so they can attend the private school of their choice. The state Senate is debating whether to renew the program in next year’s budget. On Wednesday, a Senate panel nixed the House plan to expand the program, making most of South Carolina’s students eligible for scholarships.

The current program for exceptional-needs students has proven wildly popular. By mid-November last year, taxpayers had claimed all $8 million in tax credits available, allowing hundreds of students with disabilities to attend private schools. But it’s also raised controversy and suspicion. The S.C. Department of Revenue is currently investigating Mount Pleasant-based Palmetto Kids FIRST, the largest and most active scholarship funding organization in the state. Debbie Elmore, spokeswoman for the S.C. School Boards Association, complains there are “way too many questions and very few answers” about the program’s oversight and efficacy.

“There should be no public, taxpayer funding going to a private organization that has absolutely no accountability to the taxpayer. None,” she says.

But many parents feel they have no other choice than to send their child to a private school that can better meet their more complex needs. And in South Carolina, it’s almost impossible for students with disabilities, particularly in high school to get an “inclusive” education where they’re attending classes with their typically developing peers — despite decades of research that shows inclusive classrooms lead to better academic outcomes for students with and without disabilities. According to the U.S. Department of Education, less than 10 percent of students with intellectual disabilities in South Carolina spend 80 percent or more of the school day in regular classes.

“The older you get, the closer you get to becoming a part of society, the more likely you are to be segregated,” May says.

Bishop England is an exception. During a seminar in the library, where 30 students have been pulled out of class to talk about ways to raise awareness about including people with disabilities into the community, Boudreaux counts on her fingers the names of five students with disabilities whose families moved from states like Virginia, Missouri and Ohio for Bishop England’s Options Program in the past four years. When she meets with parents, she says she often hear stories of frustration, of children being bullied or completely segregated from other students, and of schools with little to no academic expectations for them.

“They just want a place where their child can have friends, be a part of the school community, learn how to read, write, and do basic math,” she says. “Let me put it this way, we have a student in our Options Program whose family moved from New York because he was in a high school learning how to fold pizza boxes, which is not unlike what is happening in our local schools.”

Before joining Bishop England in 2007 to launch the Options Program, Boudreaux worked in special education at Dorchester District 2 for a decade. Initially, Boudreaux says she met with some resistance from teachers when she discussed bringing students with disabilities into the regular classrooms. But creating that “cultural change,” she says, was easier, in part, because of Bishop England’s faith-based mission.

“We as Catholics are constantly saying we’re pro-life; we’re pro-birth,” she says. “Well, then let’s support all of those lives.”

The school’s record for teaching kids with disabilities speaks for itself. Nine students in the Options Program have graduated since 2011, and all but one are in four-year university programs, like REACH (Realizing Educational and Career Hopes) at College of Charleston, which allow students with disabilities to take academic classes on campus.

This week, Boudreaux will accept an “Educational Excellence” award in Orlando from the National Catholic Educational Association for her work.

“When we first started this Options Program, that was not even in the realm of possibility to think that (college) was the next step,” Boudreaux says. “Now that’s what I expect of all of them.”

Back in Boudreaux’s classroom, 16-year-old Christina Rivera leans back in her chair and concentrates hard on the book in her hands. As she tucks a chunk of short, highlighted hair behind her ear, her leg jerks involuntarily. Rivera has cerebral palsy. At her old school, Cane Bay High School in Summerville, she spent every class but one — chorus — sequestered in a special-education room. She said she only had a few friends. The other kids in special ed bullied and teased her and wouldn’t talk to her, she said.

With a scholarship from St. Thomas-Aquinas, she started at Bishop England this school year, where she takes five out of her seven classes, like world history — her favorite class — and biology — her hardest class — with typically developing peers. Next year, she’ll take all of her courses in regular classrooms.

“I love it here. It’s nicer here,” Rivera says. “Everyone accepts you here.”

Rivera has big plans for her future. A music buff, she wants to go on the Warped Tour before she turns 20. She wants to dance in an evening gown at junior and senior prom. She wants at least one boyfriend — preferably with long, shaggy hair and gauge earrings. And she’s confident she’ll breeze through all of her classes and go to College of Charleston, just as many of her peers will do.

“When you think of schools, they’re basically a microcosm of society. Our job as educators is not only to teach the algebras and chemistries and term papers, it’s to teach kids how to interact in the real world and appreciate other people and work with other people and that’s what inclusion does,” Boudreaux says. “Whether they can solve every calculus problem doesn’t really matter in the world. What matters is how can you get along with people? Can you help people? Can you make the community a better place to be?”

Reach Deanna Pan at 937-5764.