By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer
Six years ago, while home schooling 12 children, including a toddler born with Down syndrome, Penny and Mike Michalak said they felt called to open a school.
The Michalak’s vision was a Catholic school where both typical children and special needs children would learn together in the same classroom.
The result is Immaculata Classical Academy, one of three independent Catholic schools recognized by the Archdiocese of Louisville this year.
The school, located at 3044 Hikes Lane in the former St. Barnabas School building, opened its doors in 2010 with 19 students, including the Michalak’s children.
Since then the school’s enrollment has grown to 160 students, 15 of whom have special needs. The school serves students who have Down, Asperger and Prader-Willi syndromes.
Ten of the Michalak’s children now are students at Immaculata, including two pre-school age boys the couple recently adopted from Poland. One of the boys has Down syndrome.
Immaculata serves students in preschool through high school. It has one classroom per grade and is divided into a lower school, which encompasses preschool through sixth-grade, and an upper school, which goes from seventh-grade to high school. The upper school currently has 60 students.
The school uses a classical liberal arts curriculum, which includes the instruction of Latin and music. But the Michalaks said what makes the school unique is the integration of typical children with those with special needs.
“You have to live compassion. You can’t learn it from a textbook,” said Mike Michalak. “They (special needs children) teach the heart.”
Compassion is one of the things that special needs children are teaching their peers at Immaculata, the Michalaks believe.
“Children with Down syndrome are a blessing to be celebrated,” said Penny Michalak. “The message we are sending to people, even if their child does not attend Immaculata, is that their child is a gift to be celebrated.”
A classical education
Justin Fout, the school’s principal, said a classical education trains the whole student. One of its tenets, he noted, is instruction in ancient language. This instruction, he said, helps train one’s mind to think logically. Students at Immaculata begin instruction in Latin in the third-grade.
Music is also part of the school’s classical curriculum. Instruction in music starts in preschool. Immaculata uses the century-old Ward Method, a method of music instruction used in the early and mid-19th century to train Catholic school students to sing sacred music.
The goal of a classical education, Fout said, is for students to fall in love with learning and for them to have a desire to seek the truth.
Including special-needs children
Immaculata aims to include special-needs students in the regular classroom as much as possible, said Penny Michalak. The typical pupils and those with special needs share a classroom from pre-school through seventh-grade.
The school also has two academic-needs coordinators who work one-on-one with special-needs students in a “resource room.” One of the coordinators may also sit with a student in the classroom in order to keep them on task, said Penny Michalak.
Around the seventh-grade, the material in a classical curriculum becomes challenging, even for a regular student, said Fout. At this point, special-needs students need separate math, reading and writing classes, he said.
“The goal is to put them where they are learning, so they can progress,” said Penny Michalak.
When the school admits a special-needs student, the student’s family is invited to attend a meeting with teachers to discuss their child’s strengths, weaknesses and goals, said Fout.
Teasha Henon, whose 10-year-old son Jordan started first-grade at Immaculata last fall, said she’s seen good results.
“In four months he has learned 25 sight words and has started to read,” said Henon. “He plays soccer here and all the kids here know him. It feels like a community.”
The Michalaks said they hope more schools consider integrating special needs children into regular classrooms.