St. Clare Institute: Ensuring academic excellence for students with learning differences

By Dr. Tara Rolle

In a 2019 internal self-study, K-8 Catholic school leaders in the Archdiocese of San Francisco overwhelmingly indicated a desire to better serve students with diverse learning needs.

Inspired to meet this need, the Department of Catholic Schools has created a cohesive approach to serving and supporting students with learning differences across the K-8 school system.

Meeting the need for new resources and tools

In recognizing our commitment to providing an excellent academic program to a broader range of learning styles and needs, however, we identified a disconnect between our desire to serve these students and the need for more new resources, training and tools.

“The educator’s vocation demands a ready and constant ability for renewal and adaptation,” asserted the Congregation for Catholic Education in examining the demands of Catholic educators. “It is not, therefore, sufficient to achieve solely an initial good level of preparation; rather, what is required is to maintain it and elevate it in a journey of permanent formation.”

This “journey of permanent formation” has inspired the efforts of the Department of Catholic Schools to continue its quest for innovative opportunities to deepen and further develop the capacity of Catholic schools to serve and support students with learning differences.

Language-based learning differences

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted academic programming with school closures and classroom cohorts. It briefly interrupted efforts to provide high-quality Catholic education to students with suspected and documented learning differences. Plans resumed in the fall of 2021 starting with a Slingerland Literacy Institute partnership. Slingerland’s screening protocol helps teachers and other specialists trained to use it to identify important information about a student’s learning patterns. It reveals strengths and weaknesses in language learning, and how these strengths and weaknesses impact reading, handwriting, spelling and written and oral expression.

The Department of Catholic Schools now offers annual training to resource teachers and others seeking certification in the use of the Slingerland screening protocol with their students.

The St. Clare Institute for Leading and Learning

Two other critical programs were launched through the St. Clare Institute for Leading and Learning — one for parents of Catholic school students with known or suspected learning differences, and another for teachers.

The St. Clare Institute for Leading and Learning is a proprietary series of professional development programs created by the Department of Catholic Schools. It was launched in 2019 to provide our Catholic school educators with continuing and advanced professional educational opportunities to ensure high-quality Catholic education at all archdiocesan Catholic schools.

For parents, an educational series was designed to help families navigate the diagnostic process and the educational system. Key topics included navigating the assessment process, conferencing after receiving a diagnosis, and networking with other Catholic school parents with children with language-based learning differences.

For teachers, a four-school, professional development cohort called “Instruction for All Learners” is part of the St. Clare Institute. This 150-hour professional development series focuses on responsive instructional practices that leverage teacher clarity practices and formative assessment to promote an inclusive and responsive instructional model. The first cohort graduated from the program in the spring of 2023, and a new cohort is planned for the fall of 2024.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

In August of 2023, the Archdiocese of San Francisco formalized a plan to pursue equitable access to federal grants under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Established in 1974, IDEA authorizes federal grants for up to 40% of average per-pupil spending nationwide to pay a portion of what it costs to provide special education services for students with disabilities.

The desired outcome for this focus on IDEA is twofold: first, to pursue and systematize Catholic school access to an equitable share of IDEA grants to provide resources to students with documented learning differences; second, to systematize and promote advocacy efforts for families in Catholic schools seeking educational evaluations from the districted public school.

For the 2023-2024 academic year, to expertly pursue IDEA for Catholic school students, the Department of Catholic Schools has partnered with ADAC, a national nonprofit organization and purveyor of specialized education services to private schools and private school organizations.

Archdiocesan K-8 schools have been invited to opt-in to a yearlong process focused on development of new classroom tools and pedagogical practices for serving students with learning differences, understanding the law as it applies to personalized student learning plans and creating and maintaining meaningful consultation with public school partners for San Mateo, San Francisco and Marin counties.

In the immediate, our priority is creating a cohesive system to support meaningful consultation and equitable participation in grants and assessments for Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of San Francisco. This system will empower school sites to pursue resources to support diverse student learning needs and will lighten the administrative demand on schools by centralizing the compliance and advocacy resources necessary for ensuring access.

St. Brigid Academy

The Department of Catholic Schools has articulated a vision that includes a comprehensive system of schools that are expertly able to serve and support students with learning differences, with particular › emphasis on language-based differences, including dyslexia. This model has already started taking root at St. Brigid School with the announcement of its conversion to St. Brigid Academy in 2024/2025.

In the fall of 2024, St. Brigid Academy will convert to a school that joyfully and intentionally serves students with language- and attention-based learning differences. Leveraging practices that support all students, the particular emphasis on language-based learning differences will allow a broader demographic of learners to receive a tailored academic program to ensure excellence across the curriculum.

Staff will receive specialized training, and the academic day will be adjusted to respond to specific student learning needs. This new program will build upon the individualized instructional model currently utilized at the school.

According to Megan Rabbitt, St. Brigid head of school, small class sizes, individualized instruction and a “multi-sensory learning approach” are integral features of the school. Faculty cultivate critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and problem-solving through engaging classroom and enrichment activities, all within a strong faith-based, values-centered learning community led by a Catholic tradition of academic excellence.

Serving a diverse range of students with excellence is a hallmark of Catholic education in the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Our school leaders are committed and capable; they have joined these initiatives with enthusiasm and professionalism and are excellent partners in our newest work pursuing IDEA access for our students. Our Catholic schools are a testament to the passion and commitment of our leadership to embrace the tools and resources necessary to innovate access and excellence for Catholic school students. 

Dr. Tara Rolle is the associate superintendent for continuous school improvement.