|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.
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
The idea of founding a Catholic special needs school
began with an inspiration that two women (who happen to
be Regnum Christi members) brought to fulfillment on their own
|Celina Manville helps a student with one of her assignments.|
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
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, 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.”
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
|Volunteer teachers assist kids in their reading class.|
needs children in the context of Catholic educational institutions.
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,”
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
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.
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
|“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
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
|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.
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
“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
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
“We’re among the students. We sit among them
at lunch and get involved in their conversations. We love
|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
“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
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
|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.
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
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,
“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.
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
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 www.allsaintsacademy.net or contact Carol
Sanchez at email@example.com or Celina Manville at firstname.lastname@example.org.