By Maggie Cornejo
In 1998, four families came up with an idea that would signify a paramount shift in special education at PVI and beyond. Recognizing a need for inclusive secondary education for students with intellectual disabilities, several families came together to form what would eventually become the Options program at PVI.
Fast forward four years and when the first Options class prepared to graduate from PVI and the need for a similar program at the post secondary level became apparent. The discussions that followed among several of the families that steered the creation of the Options program at PVI paved the way for a higher education program for students with intellectual disabilities at nearby George Mason University.
PVI Options graduate Laura Lee ‘02 joined two others as the inaugural members of George Mason University’s Mason LIFE program, which has grown from three students in the first year, to more than 50 students in the program this year. Creating a program that Options students could matriculate to after graduating from PVI has created a lasting partnership between the institutions.
Mrs. Desmarais, PVI’s Options director, said the opportunities for these students would not have been possible without the involvement of PVI families.
“The marriage between the Options and Mason LIFE was thanks to the matchmaking of the Lees and other PVI families.”
The creation of the PVI Options program, and later, the Mason LIFE program at George Mason University, can be traced back to when Laura Lee’s ‘02 mother, Stephanie Lee, beganresearching options for her daughter with special needs. She was soon joined by the Harrington family, who originally contacted Paul VI asking that their son Darby be enrolled as his older siblings had been before him. Eventually, another family, the Alonsos, contacted former PVI development director Anne-Marie Chester about the possibility of an Options program at PVI. The families were then given permission to build a parent committee to raise funds and create a model pilot program.
The committee worked diligently to secure and paint new classroom space above the auditorium, and later form the school’s first Special Olympics team. The newly formed Options program became the first high school program of its kind in the area, inspiring other schools in the Northern Virginia area to model it.
Similar programs for students with intellectual disabilities has spread to other diocesan schools in recent years, including to John Paul the Great High School in Dumfries, VA, and Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, VA.
“What partially drove decision for John Paul the Great High School was the Bishop’s statement that when the school was built it would have a program similar to that of Paul VI as the diocese is very proud of what has been built here,” said Megan Battle, peer mentor coordinator for the Ooption program.
O’Connell has expanded on both programs and this year has created an “Expanded Services Program,” which allows students with disabilities to focus on making their academics individualized. With increasing opportunities available to those with intellectual disabilities, new light has been shed on this field.
“Awareness has been heightened and we are making progress, especially in Catholic schools,” says Desmarais.
At PVI, the Options program has steadily grown, serving sixteen students this year for the second year in a row. The Options program fosters lifelong relationships while building on skills that will be used for all careers. Desmarais describes the program as “very alumni driven, inviting students back to various events.”
Enrollment in the Mason LIFE program has also grown in recent years.
According to the Washington Post, the Mason LIFE program was the first public university program of its kind. The first year, Laura and her two friends were enrolled as part of a pilot program. Now, around 6,500 students are enrolled in postsecondary programs across the country, and more than fifty students at Mason after only enrolling three the first year.
Although it is expanding, the job market for students with intellectual disabilities is limited at this point in time.
“There is a push for inclusions in schools, wherever they finish their education, college or county, there are more opportunities to find a job than there have been but the jobs students train for are not always ones they can continue in,” explained Desmarais.
In response, the National Down Syndrome Society has been creating awareness for what these students can accomplish, with the hope that more will be considered for jobs.