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Turn to Jesus (Article)

Serving Special Needs Children and Families
All Saints Academy: a one-in-a-kind school with a dual mission and a unique philosophy.

kindergarten children
The kindergarten class at All Saints Academy.

July 13, 2010. Raleigh, NC. Celina Manville and Carol Sanchez were standing in the hallway of the school they had founded together when they witnessed one of those simple, but meaningful moments that seem to sum up how a dream can become a reality.

A first grader and a seventh grader, each walking in different directions down the hallway, spontaneously gave each other a cheerful high-five when they crossed paths.

Nothing extraordinary. But on further reflection, it was the very “ordinariness” of the moment that made it special. In most schools, a seventh grader wouldn’t bother to give the time of day to a first-grader half his size. At All Saints Academy, kids not only socialize with all age groups, but they also welcome and integrate special needs children into the fabric of ordinary school life.

More than a school, All Saints is a community built on strong family values. In a way, it is a family writ large.

A Heart for Special Needs Children

The idea of founding a Catholic special needs school
celina teaching reading
Celina Manville helps a student with one of her assignments.
began with an inspiration that two women (who happen to be Regnum Christi members) brought to fulfillment on their own initiative.

For Celina Manville, it all began at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, where she majored in elementary school education with a specialization in learning disabilities. Her dream was to help special needs children in the context of a Catholic educational system.

What she didn’t know then was that most Catholic schools do not accept special needs children. The few schools that do accept them send them to a trailer building or a special area separate from the main campus. It troubled her that these children were either rejected or shuttled off into a separate area, and she began to realize that it would take much more than just one teacher to change the system. 

When one of her own children was born with autism a few years later, the desire to help grew into a deep conviction that something more had to be done.

Meanwhile, her sister-in-law, Carol Sanchez, had
Carol Sanchez school administrator
Carol Sanchez, who cofounded the school, serves as its administrator.
adopted four children, one of whom had Asperger’s Syndrome, which is a type of autism.  Together, the two women began researching options to meet their children’s needs.

“We tried all kinds of things,” recalled Celina. “We had that deep desire for our children to receive a Catholic education, but none of the schools in our area took kids with disabilities.”

As they researched Catholic educational institutions in the States and into Canada, they realized that they were in a position to help other parents by meeting a need that few other institutions were addressing, and the idea of founding a Catholic school integrating special needs children was born.

With Celina’s background in elementary school education and Carol’s MBA from the University of Michigan, the two women had complementary skill sets that made them an ideal team.

They also discovered that the USCCB had been calling for an effort to reach out to special
reading class ASA
Volunteer teachers assist kids in their reading class.
needs children in the context of Catholic educational institutions.

“It was when we started this research that we discovered the USCCB has a Special Needs Directory and that they applaud these efforts and want Catholic education to move in this direction,” said Celina.

In 2006, they took the plunge and opened All Saints Academy as a one-of-a-kind “Maximum Challenge school.”  This year, All Saints is celebrating its fifth anniversary, having grown from eight to fifty students in four years.

The Meaning of “Maximum Challenge”

Many people had suggested that All Saints be opened as a Catholic school exclusively for special needs children, which would have been an excellent step in itself. But Celina and Carol had observed an additional difficulty that families of special needs children experience: the loss of family unity.

Both women knew from personal experience that when one child has special needs and must attend a separate school, family life becomes more complicated and fragmented. Parents have to juggle different school calendars and schedules, siblings are separated, and the different schools are often miles apart, which can make transportation arrangements quite complex. The logistical arrangements can be exhausting and can put
teaching reading
“Maximum Challenge” is a personalized approach to educating each child.
an extra strain on marriages that may already be struggling just to accept their circumstances and make difficult decisions for their family.

Carol and Celina wanted the school to have a dual mission: to serve not only the children with special needs, but also their families. So they conceived of the school as an integrated institution where “normal” children and special needs children learn and study side-by-side. In fact, families are encouraged to enroll all of their children at the school, not just one or two.  

The concept of “Maximum Challenge” comes into play as a personalized approach to educating each child. At All Saints, students are grouped by skill level in each of the core subjects, not by age or grade level, so a gifted third grader may be in the same reading class as an average fourth grader and an autistic sixth grader. The school opened its doors to gifted children as another “special needs” group when families told Carol and Celina that in some cases, their gifted children were the target of bullying and sometimes would get in trouble because they finished their work so quickly and had nothing to do.

At All Saints, children are given homework assignments adequate to their particular abilities—slow, gifted, and average— so that each one is challenged to the maximum, but not overwhelmed
administrators award kids
Celina Manville and Carol Sanchez present an award to two students.
by unrealistic expectations. As a result, the children not only learn at a pace right for them, but they grow in compassion and learn the true meaning of justice.

“There’s no griping or complaining if some kids in the class get less homework and others get more. They know they’re being challenged at their level,” observed Celina.

Parents are exceptionally involved in the school. All of the school’s nine full-time teachers are parents who volunteer their services in exchange for a tuition reduction. 

“The level of volunteer commitment is extraordinary,” said Celina, noting that even parents who don’t teach are constantly doing something to help the school.

“Everyone works here because they believe in the mission,” she said.

Learning from St John Bosco

There is another factor that makes All Saints a unique school: its pedagogical philosophy, modeled after St John Bosco’s preventive approach based on reason, religion, and kindness.

At All Saints, students and teachers are not separated by the usual gulf created by the fear of authority. Instead, the teachers’ presence among the students is natural and spontaneous, based on friendship and family spirit.

“We’re among the students. We sit among them at lunch and get involved in their conversations. We love
girls at lunchtime
At All Saints, the teachers mingle with the students, sharing their interests.
what they love so that they can love what we love: Christ,” said Celina.

“And it has unfolded beautifully. The kids are good to each other; you don’t have that peer competition among them.”

She observed that when there are problems, a teacher sits down one-on-one with the student and talks to him or her, listening first to what the child has to say. In many cases, the children are so eager to please their teachers that “punishment might just mean that they see you’re disappointed in them.”

At the same time, the teachers are constantly striving to make sure that the rules they do set in place are reasonable and consistent. And when teachers make mistakes, they are not afraid to admit it and say “I’m sorry” to their students, just like St John Bosco.

Unlike what one might expect, a teacher’s apology opens hearts.

“It makes kids more open to you. They are so ready to forgive,” observed Celina.

The teachers’ efforts to “put Christ in everything” have created a community where the children respond in kind, treating their peers with love and respect.

Celina also noted that it has been a blessing to have her parish priest, Fr Joe Moroney, come weekly for Mass and monthly for confessions. The school also gathers daily for morning, noon, and afternoon prayer to foster that daily integration between faith and life.

Letting God Lead

Carol and Celina, each with their unique gifts, are both proactive people who
morning prayers at All Saints
Children pray their morning prayers in their classroom.
have no hesitations about rolling up their sleeves and working to meet the needs they see around them. Since starting the school, one of their biggest lessons has been to trust in God’s providence when they find themselves facing a challenge that they cannot meet on their own resources.

There are times when the school’s needs go beyond their immediate power to solve, and it’s precisely then that they have to make a conscious act of entrustment to God.

“When things are tough and we’re not sure how to do it, we say, ‘OK, let’s step back and give God room to act.’”

At the same time, they are full of plans, goals, and projections for the future.

One of those goals is to expand the kinds of services they can offer to children with special needs. So far, the school serves children with attention disorder, dyslexia, autism, bipolar disorder, and Aspergers, but they have not yet received any children with Down’s Syndrome, for example.

“We’d like to be able to serve those kids, too. So far we’ve never turned a child away. We tell parents, ‘We’ll work with you to make it work,’” said Celina, noting that this year they will be offering therapies on site in the therapy room to help preserve family life and save parents the extra complication of shuttling children from school to clinics several times a week.

Another goal is to serve as a model for other programs.

“We don’t want to be larger than a hundred students and we’re about halfway there right now,” said Celina. She and Carol feel that although starting a school like All Saints is not easy, it’s “not undoable” and they would like to inspire other people to pick up the same challenge.

For those who have a heart for special needs children, All Saints is a model worth considering. If you are interested in learning more about how the school operates, please visit the web site at or contact Carol Sanchez at or Celina Manville at



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Sponsored by the congregation of the Legionaries of Christ and the Regnum Christi Movement, Copyright 2011, Legion of Christ. All rights reserved.

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