Home Education and Careers Elementary schools in Diocese of Wilmington offer educational boost to aid students

Elementary schools in Diocese of Wilmington offer educational boost to aid students

Anne Burbage, the special education teacher at St. Anthony of Padua School in Wilmington, sits in her office. Dialog photo/Mike Lang

Several elementary schools in the Diocese of Wilmington offer their students additional support to make sure they have the best chance at success. The approaches vary, as do the names, but the thought behind the programs is the same.

At St. Ann’s in Wilmington, support is offered in reading and math. The reading component, under the guidance of Kathy Watson, is in its fourth year and focuses more on the younger grades.

“As the kids kind of progress, I start doing less on the actual components of reading and switch more toward fluency comprehension or managing heavy caseloads of reading,” Watson said.

The math program is in its first year under Renee-Pier Ingraham. She meets with students as young as kindergarten and goes into the middle school grades once a week.

Testing is not necessary for students to be part of the program. The school uses a combination of factors to determine which students need assistance, including input from teachers since they are with the children every day. Watson said testing might be suggested, but that isn’t always necessary.

“They just struggle with a concept,” she said.

Students at St. Ann School can visit this room if they want. Courtesy photo

Watson was an assistant in first grade when the reading support program began. She said one of the goals for the school as it underwent its Middle States evaluation was to offer better educational support within the school. They added the math program after seeing the success of the reading component.

“We had the reading support, and we wanted to expand. It’s been neat to see some of the growth in the little kids,” said Ingraham, who used to teach fourth grade. She said she has seen “math anxiety” go away in some cases.

Watson said before St. Ann’s had its own support, the school noticed that many students were getting it elsewhere. They thought it would be better if they could get that at the school.

She also said she talked to two of her daughters as the program was developed. They are dyslexic and recalled being pulled from class to get extra help. Partly based on their experience, St. Ann’s wanted to offer the assistance without having the children feel awkward about needing it. She and Ingraham don’t like to take students out of classes they tend to find fun.

“It shouldn’t ever be a bad thing. It’s hard for them to be pulled out of a class,” Watson said. “They know that they are supported at St. Ann’s School. The families know they are supported.”

There is no extra cost for school families.

A few miles away at Immaculate Heart of Mary School, principal Tina Morroni said that upon her arrival in 2019, she noticed something based on her 23 years in a public school system in Sussex County: some students could use a boost. IHM had the data it needed, so it was a matter of building a program.

It started with Kathy Ifkovits doing reading intervention. Later, the school added a math interventionist. “Little by little,” IHM officials saw the benefits of their work.

This year, the school has put into place a federal program called Response to Intervention, or RTI. Ifkovits said it includes three levels of intervention, and the benefit is that it also addresses those students all over the academic achievement scale.

One tier is for those at grade level or an accelerated level, who may work independently or at a faster pace. Tier two addresses those struggling with certain concepts or skills. An interventionist will work with those students either by reteaching the material or giving them supplemental work. The third tier is for children who may be a few months behind grade level. In that case, the student could be pulled from class to work with an interventionist.

Ifkovits said all students benefit from this approach.

“I think the one benefit we have with creating this program with RTI in our school is that we’re addressing every child’s learning style. Not necessarily a learning difference, but a style,” she said.

Morroni said the program at IHM allows the school to really target the skills that need to be addressed.

According to Ifkovits, if insufficient progress is made over time, the school will communicate with parents that additional steps might be necessary. Students can be referred for additional testing through the Brandywine School District.

Students don’t need to test to be considered for support at Immaculate Heart of Mary. Testing scores and other metrics are used to decide that. The cost of the program has been built into the tuition, Ifkovits said.

Special education has been part of the offerings at St. Anthony of Padua School in Wilmington for several years now, also at no cost to the families.

“We felt like that was the missing piece,” principal Judy White said.

The school does individualized education plans (IEPs) for any child who needs one. After the first few weeks of school, White said she has a binder with the accommodation plan for each student who needs assistance.

St. Anthony keeps the students in their classes if possible. They employ co-teaching, one-on-one work and small groups. Ann Burbage, the special education teacher, said she has worked with teachers to make adjustments.

“We work together on additional accommodations if there’s a need in that particular class,” she said. “It’s kind of been a back and forth, changing things up a bit, to meet the needs of the students where they are.”

White said the program has been very popular. There is no additional cost, for one. Second, they do not require testing to make accommodations in a student’s learning approach. If they believe an accommodation will help, it is made. She said the teachers have become very adept at building those accommodations into their classes.

Any testing that needs to be done goes through the Red Clay Consolidated School District, or a family could have it done privately. Going through a private entity is much faster, but it can be expensive, she said.

Burbage said testing helps the school pinpoint where a student’s needs are.

“If a child does come in with educational testing and/or an IEP, we can also take that IEP and incorporate the suggestions and the goals that are in the IEP and use that when creating accommodations for the student,” she said.

The team at St. John the Beloved School in the Pike Creek area includes the counselor, an instructional coach and a Reading Assist specialist. They work primarily with students in the lower grades, said Paula Ryan, the instructional coach. Some of the intervention is done during the school day, some after school.

The group meets with parents and teachers throughout the process. As at the other schools, teachers at St. John the Beloved have skillfully adapted to working education plans into their classrooms.

Delfin said the program has been very successful.

“It’s a process. Understanding where kids are, and giving them the support of what they need, is the overriding factor in what we do. Guidance, emotional or academic, reading … there’s a process that’s very thorough and has really done amazing work for many students,” he said.

Ryan said the program began seven years ago and has grown and adapted in that time. She moved to St. John the Beloved to work two days a week after retiring as principal at St. Peter the Apostle School in New Castle. She now works four days a week.

Debbie Tharan, the Reading Assist specialist, said the idea for an academic support program came from the teachers.

“I think the teachers really saw the need more than the parents did and really wanted the extra support for students who are struggling,” she said.

The school has five paraprofessionals who work in the classrooms. No student is pulled from regular academic classes, and their “specials” are rotated so he or she is not taken out of the same one every week.

Delfin, whose arrived at St. John the Beloved from a charter school, said providing this kind of support is becoming more prevalent in education.

“That’s kind of the way education is going. It’s support. It’s understanding where the student is, whether it’s emotional, whether it’s academic, and providing those supports and seeing that individual attention,” he said.

Finally, at St. Edmond’s Academy in Brandywine Hundred, the Andre Program has been around since 2014 and has proven to be extremely popular, school officials said.

“Each year, it’s getting larger and more defined. We’re finding more ways to support our boys with learning differences,” said Jocelyn Delaney, the Andre Program coordinator.

This year, there are 36 boys from grades four through eight who are enrolled. To be eligible, they need to have been diagnosed through testing. St. Edmond’s works with the Brandywine School District and private evaluators for that. The information is shared with the student and his parents so each party understands how the student learns, she said.

The curriculum is not modified for those in the program, Delaney said. What changes is the method used to teach that material.

“They can do this work. And that’s the most important thing. They believe they can do this work, and we believe that they can do this work,” she said.

Two rooms in the school have been set aside for the Andre Program, which is named after St. André Bessette, a lay brother of the Congregation of the Holy Cross. The Holy Cross Brothers founded St. Edmond’s Academy and staffed it for more than 50 years. Amy Rottura, the director of student life, said the boys can come to the rooms for testing, or if they need more time or a quieter environment to do their work.

Delaney said part of the program is helping the students organize their work. They work on executive functions. Each boy has a binder to help keep them on track.

“Half of the battle is you are making them aware of what they’re responsible for and how they can organize their work to make them successful,” she said.

The aim of the Andre Program, like those at the other schools, is to help the students find success. Rottura said they want their boys in a position where they can succeed wherever they go to high school. Part of that is meeting them where they are academically.

“We know that students learn differently. Each year, we learn that more and more,” she said.