Why would a struggling parochial school, still advertising for students in mid-summer, reject an applicant who is highly qualified academically?
It isn't a financial decision, as the parents are capable of paying the full tuition.
It's not a religious issue; the school's website specifically states, "Children of all faiths may attend Saint Rita School. All students attend religion classes, school masses and activities."
What could it be, then?
The answer is fear of autism and disability discrimination.
There are many social justice issues around autism. Now we have another one: exclusion of a qualified student from a desired religious education.
The causes for the threatened school closing point directly at short-comings by school administration and board, from an enrollment short-fall of about 50 students (assuming class sizes of 20 for preschool through 8th grade); failure to collect tuition in a timely manner (tuition in arrears amounted to about 8% of the 2012-2013 budget); and an overly-generous tuition reduction program (about 14% of the budget).
Faced with the closing, the school community sprang into action:
Prior to the Archbishop's March 20 announcement, an anonymous donor pledged to give St. Rita's $200,000, if the community raised matching funds.
Hundreds of people attended meetings organized by Brenda Gubbins of Fairfax, who has two daughters at the school. They went to work contacting elected representatives and raising money.
In response, on March 20, San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone agreed to consider keeping the school open if certain conditions were met.
To keep the school open, families who are behind in their tuition payments must make up the amount in arrears, which amounts to $100,000; the school must fully cover its operating deficit for the current school year, which is between $250,000 and $300,000; and the school must develop a financially viable operating budget for next year.
In the March 26 Principal's newsletter, St. Rita's Principal Carol Arritola announced that she was retiring.
In January, Fr. Ken offered me a contract for the 2013-2014 school year. I told him that I appreciated his confidence in me, but I felt that it was time for me to retire. I did not make this decision after all the problems began. I made the decision because I am 67 years old and the job is more than I want to do in the future. I am leaving at the end of this year knowing that I have done the best job that I knew how to do and that together we have accomplished a great deal over these four years. Fr. Ken will put a search committee together soon to look for the new Principal for Saint Rita School.
Then there was another great stroke of luck. On April 15th, an anonymous donor, evidently from San Mateo County, donated a no-strings gift of $250,000 to the school, which ensured the school's financial stability for the 2013-2014 school year.
In the meantime, the Willingham family, who had recently relocated to Marin County, decided to apply to St. Rita's for the 2013-2014 school year for their oldest son, who would be entering 7th grade.
They applied early in May. Dr. Willingham wrote of the school,
The attractions were numerous—the middle school staff have a high reputation, in spite of the school’s financial woes, the classes are small, and the overall atmosphere is one of scrappy fortitude rather than the usual air of entitlement so many private schools emit.
From third through sixth grade, young Mr. Willingham was in a hybrid home-school/bricks-and-mortar program, in which he excelled, both academically and socially. He has very high academic capacity -- the kind that any school, let alone a struggling school, would be happy to have. The young man "shadowed" at St. Rita's for a day and enjoyed it. The parents assumed, especially given the fact that the school was continuing to advertise for students, that their son would be accepted.
Not surprisingly, given the small size of the school, there's not an Admissions Director (to the best of my knowledge, few parochial schools have such as staff position). At St. Rita's, the 2013-2014 admissions process appears to be managed by the Principal, possibly in consultation with teachers; the Principal's decision is final.
May went by, and the Willingham family heard nothing from St. Rita's, until early in June, when they received the following letter from the retiring principal:
......After seeing his performance and studying the information that you shared with us, it is our decision not to accept [redacted] for the 7th grade. [Redacted] needs much more resource and teacher time than we have available due to our very limited number of teachers on our staff.”
What information? The Willingham family had included contact information for young Mr. Willingham's previous school, and apparently no one from St. Rita's had followed through.
What supports? The Willingham family had been open about their son's autism, and the fact that he has been without an aide at school since 2009. He needs no academic support and no more behavioral support than any other 7th grader.
The process and the Willingham admission decision appears to be in direct contraction to St. Rita's Parent-Student Handbook, on page 16, reads:
ADMISSIONS: STATEMENT OF NON-DISCRIMINATION
Saint Rita School, mindful of its mission to be witness to the love of Christ for all, admits students of any race, color, and national and/or ethnic origin to all the rights, privileges, programs and activities generally accorded to or made available to students at this school. Saint Rita School does not unlawfully discriminate on the basis or race, color, and national and/or ethnic origin, age, sex or disability in administration of educational policies, admissions policies, scholarship and loan programs, and athletic and other school-administered programs.
A student is admitted to Saint Rita School only if it is determined that the child has a reasonable, wellfounded hope of successfully completing the school’s program. Students are interviewed and evaluated to determine readiness. Results of the interview and evaluation are confidential.
Here is the kicker: Young Mr. Willingham was not interviewed by the school principal at any time. Nor was he formally interviewed by either of the individuals listed on the school website as "resource specialists". He did not speak to the school's pastor.
In June, Dr. Willingham (a PhD, not an MD), appealed St. Rita's decision to the Diocese of San Francisco's superintendent of schools, who did not respond. Neither did a member of St. Rita's School Board of Directors or the school's pastor.
So Dr. Willingham took the next step. On July 5th, she published a blog post, concluding:
The bottom line? This school rejected our academically capable, emotionally mature son, using a rationale that is demonstrably and clearly without basis. This school discriminated against our son because of his autism, plain and simple. This administrator feared autism. She immediately presumed incompetence and stuck with that assumption in the face of a pile of evidence to the contrary, and she never bothered to meet with him or us to discuss it in good faith. And that is not OK. Not just because of our son but on behalf of any autistic or otherwise disabled person.
For this reason, I will unmask the pseudonyms in this post and go wide if we do not learn that there has been a good-faith and appropriate effort to review our son’s application and evaluate it. This school and the Archdiocese of Urban Area need to be aware that this kind of blatant discrimination, this dismissiveness of a person with disabilities based on presuming incompetence is not acceptable and that a loud, not even-remotely-joyful noise will arise in the face of it.
The school's pastor, Rev. Dr. Kenneth Weare, finally responded to Dr. Willingham by mail on July 19th. He upheld Principal Arritola's decision to deny young Mr. Willingham admission, with a whitewash, claiming he and other school personnel had given
serious and concerted evaluation of the circumstances.
Except, of course, they had not.
Dr. Willingham responded to the pastor with an email
I note here that the way the decision process is described, only one person in the group making the determination could have been someone who met with and interacted personally with our son, and that no one involved has gotten in touch with any of our son's previous teachers about his abilities. All of our statements that our son needs no supports and our provision of information supporting that and of teacher contact information for the same purposes have gone completely overlooked in favor of a blanket, unfactual determination that our son requires extra "resources" and "care." Only one member of the team that made this decision interacted personally with our son, and she spent an hour with me after his shadow day expressing nothing but positive reactions about it. Our son's ITBS scores are in line with or exceed those published for the school. He performs at or above grade level in all subject areas, without supports. For these reasons, we must infer that institutional discrimination is at work here.
As I reviewed what happened, I realized something. Arritola, Weare, and possibly the "school counselor" are all near retirement age or beyond. Maybe their ideas about autism haven't moved into the 21st century. That's not an excuse, but an observation. Maybe, like other social changes, real autism acceptance will take younger, more educated people being in educational leadership positions.
Here's another thing that struck me. Rev. Dr. Weare is proud of his 30-year history advocating for and teaching social justice. He missed an opportunity here.The Autism National Committee (AutCom) "We believe that inclusive education is a matter of social justice and not clinical debate."
The Diocese of Buffalo:
Our Church Opens Minds through awareness about the variety of disabilities that affect people every day. There is no us and them when it comes to disabilities. All people are differently-abled and all people will experience some disability, at least once in life. A parish Opens Minds whenever it takes concrete steps to exercise God's compassion for people who are differently-abled physically, mentally or emotionally.
The National Catholic Partnership on Disability has addressed Access in Catholic Education with a ringing call:
Catholic schools more perfectly reflect the single flock envisioned by Jesus, our Shepherd, when they welcome and integrate students with disabilities into the total life of the school.
There are books All Are Welcome: Inclusive Service Delivery in Catholic Schools and Inclusive Catholic Schools: A Matter of Possibilities and a leaders Martin K Scanlan, Juliana Taymans and Michael Termini, to name three.
Maybe this is an opportunity for the education department of the Diocese of San Francisco to develop a more mature understanding of academically-capable autistic students who seek a Catholic education in the Diocese, and what those students and their families can bring to each of their schools. Other parochial schools have made the effort, according to a 2010 article.Sources
- Spring 2007 Peter Myer, Can Catholic Schools Be Saved? EducationNext, https://educationnext.org/can-catholic-schools-be-saved/
- October 11 2009 Christian Goepel, Fairfax Pastor Marks 3 Decades of Human Rights Advocacy, Marin Independent Journal, https://www.marinij.com/fairfax/ci_13539776
- February 23, 2010 Michael Alison Chandler, More Catholic schools reaching out to special-needs students Washington Post https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/02/22/AR2010022204798.html
- October 8 2010 Valerie Schmalz, Archdiocesan plan for struggling schools, Catholic San Francisco https://www.sfarchdiocese.org/about-us/articles-resources/2010-Archived-Articles/Archdiocesan-plan-for-struggling-schools-2311/
- November 7 2011 Asd2Mom, Social Justice, Humanity, and Autism Raising Asperger's Kids https://asd2mom.blogspot.com/2011/11/social-justice-humanity-and-autism.html
- February 28 2012 Janis Mara, St. Rita's to Close, Marin Independent Journal https://www.marinij.com/fairfax/ci_22691297/st-rita-school-fairfax-closing-parents-vow-fight
- March 20, 2013, Janis Mara, Fairfax's St. Rita's School wins chance to stay open, Marin Independent Journal https://www.marinij.com/fairfax/ci_22836566/fairfaxs-st-rita-school-wins-chance-stay-open
- March 26 2013 Carol Arritola, Principal's Newsletter, https://stritaschool.info/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=204:newsletter&catid=56:principal-newsletter&Itemid=64
- April 1 2013 Janis Mara, Marin Independent Journal, Fairfax's St. Rita School to Remain Open https://www.marinij.com/fairfax/ci_22917849/fairfaxs-st-rita-school-remain-open
- March 26, 2013 Carol Arritola, Principal's Newsletter, https://stritaschool.info/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=204:newsletter&catid=56:principal-newsletter&Itemid=64
- April 23, 2013 Carol Arritola, Principal's Newsletter https://stritaschool.info/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=206:newsletter&catid=56:principal-newsletter&Itemid=64
- April 24, 2013 Paul Liberatore, Marin Independent Journal, Financial angel blesses St. Rita's School with $250,000 gift https://www.marinij.com/fairfax/ci_23099945/financial-angel-blesses-st-ritas-school-250-000
- July 5, 2013 Emily Willingham, Emily Willingham PdD, Application denied because, well, autism, of course https://www.emilywillinghamphd.com/2013/07/application-denied-because-well-autism.html
- July 19 2013 Emily Willingham, Emily Willingham PhD, Disability discrimination: Autistic child not accepted at St. Rita School in Marin Co., California https://www.emilywillinghamphd.com/2013/07/disability-discrimination-autistic.html
- Administrative Handbook for Elementary and Secondary Schools, Diocese of San Francisco https://www.sfarchdiocese.org/media/files/Policy-Index/09D_2.PDF
- Parent-Student Handbook, St. Rita School, 2012-2013 https://stritaschool.info/images/stories/Parent_Student_Handbook_2012_13.pdf
- Autism National Committee, Position Paper on Inclusive Education and Social Justice https://www.autcom.org/articles/Position3.html
- Diocese of Buffalo, Disability Action Team https://www.buffalodiocese.org/Evangelization/Disabilities/OpenMindsthroughAwareness/SpecificDisabilities/AutismSpectrumDisorders.aspx