Sean Nelson hugs his mother, Shannon Nelson, after presenting her with a flower following his eighth-grade graduation at St. Thecla Parish, 6725 W. Devon Ave., on June 8. Seans father, Jerry, (left) takes a picture with his cell phone. (Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)
Sean Nelson makes his eighth-grade graduation with his class at St. Thecla Parish, 6725 W. Devon Ave., on June 8. (Karen Callaway/ Catholic New World)
Principal Dan Gargano and Father Gene Dyer, pastor of St. Thecla Parish, greet Sean Nelson after handing him his diploma on June 8. (Karen Callaway/ Catholic New World)
Sean Nelson prepares to lead his class into church for Mass at his eighth-grade graduation at St. Thecla Parish, 6725 W. Devon Ave., on June 8. (Karen Callaway/ Catholic New World)
Parents take pictures and video as their children process into church for eighth-grade graduation at St. Thecla Parish, 6725 W. Devon Ave., on June 8. (Karen Callaway/ Catholic New World)
Sean Nelson smiles during his eighth-grade at St. Thecla Parish, 6725 W. Devon Ave., on June 8. (Karen Callaway/ Catholic New World)
Sean Nelson gives a hug to his dad, Jerry Nelson, following his eighth-grade graduation at St. Thecla Parish, 6725 W. Devon Ave., on June 8. (Karen Callaway/ Catholic New World)
When Sean Nelson was born 14 years ago, he was diagnosed with Down syndrome. As doctors and other medical staff tried to explain what the diagnosis would mean for him, his mother, Shannon Nelson, had one thought: He won’t be able to go to Catholic school.
“It was just so much a part of how we were raised,” Shannon Nelson said. “I never thought of my children not going to a Catholic school.”
On June 8, Sean graduated from St. Thecla School, 6323 N. Newcastle. It was the same school his sister, his mother and his grandmother graduated from, the same school his three younger brothers attend. He will be a freshman this fall at Notre Dame College Prep in Niles.
For Sean’s part, his favorite thing about St. Thecla are computer class, gym and lunch, and his friends. He’s looking forward to high school — a friend has already promised to eat lunch with him — but less than pleased there will not be girls there.
Sean’s story is not a common one; few Catholic elementary schools have accepted students with Down syndrome or other cognitive delays, fewer still have kept them as students from kindergarten through eighth-grade graduation. Notre Dame College Prep is one of five Catholic high schools in the country to have a program for students with mild to moderate cognitive impairments.
The work that Sean, his family and his school did has won admiration from Dominican Sister M. Paul McCaughey, the archdiocesan superintendent of Catholic schools.
“Sean’s parents’ love mirrors that of so many families with exceptional children,” she said. “Having St. Thecla School work with them and then having Notre Dame High School’s special program ready for Sean was a blessing that I wish more families across the diocese could share. The strategic plan for schools and the To Teach Who Christ Is campaign both hold that dream.”
Sean’s parents began laying the groundwork to send him to Catholic school early on. They worked with various therapists and educators when Sean was young; they got to know other parents who had children with Down syndrome. Some of them had their children in preschool in Catholic schools, but by kindergarten, they found it wasn’t working out.
Shannon Nelson tried a different path; she didn’t try to put Sean in preschool at St. Thecla. But when he was preschool-age, and when his older sister was in preschool there, she started working on the school staff and the pastor to see if they would let Sean come to kindergarten when he was ready.
It took almost all of those two years, of explaining that they understood the school couldn’t afford extra resources, but that they would help the school find what it needed, that the most important thing to them was for Sean to be educated in the context of his faith.
“I remember saying to the pastor, my favorite prayer is the Serenity Prayer, and no one has given me the wisdom to see I can’t change this,” Nelson said.
Finally, the spring before Sean was due to start kindergarten, the school principal agreed to try having Sean in school. Then, unexpectedly, he died.
The pastor, Father Ken Budzikowski, met with the Nelsons, the kindergarten teacher and the assistant principal. He encouraged them to allow Sean in school.
“I think he really just thought it was the right thing to do,” Nelson said.
But that meeting — trying to convince the teacher of Sean’s next grade that he should be in her class — was something that happened every year, and every year, Nelson was aware that it might not work out.
“We wanted Sean at St. Thecla because it was the right place for him,” she said. “But if his teacher was not confident that he should be there, it wouldn’t be the right place for him anymore. When we started, the short-term goal was to make it through First Communion.”
But, she noticed, each year, the teacher whose class Sean was leaving would come to the meeting and try to encourage the new teacher to have Sean in his or her class. The ones who started out hesitant turned out to be Sean’s biggest cheerleaders.
But going into third grade, the year after First Communion, no one had to talk Sean’s new teacher into taking him. She asked for him to be in her class.
And by coincidence or providence, when Sean and his classmates were moving up to middle school in sixth grade, when they had to start coping with multiple teachers and a more complicated schedule, that teacher also moved up to middle school — and St. Thecla found the money to hire a resource teacher to assist students with special needs.
Two years ago, when Dan Gargano became principal at St. Thecla, the Nelsons were the first family he met. They came to see him before the previous school year ended, so that Shannon Nelson could ask her question: Can Sean come back next year?
“I said of course,” Gargano said. “Why wouldn’t he?”
Sean, Gargano said, is an integral part of his class. He gets the same thing out of his Catholic education that the other students do: a loving, stable environment, education in his faith and a chance to understand that he is a child of God. His fellow students don’t see his presence as something special, and, while they understand that he sometimes needs help with things, they don’t think they are doing anything special by providing it.
“The problems that Sean has are eighth-grade-boy problems, like turning in homework on time or issues on the playground,” Gargano said. “His successes are eighth-grade-boy successes.”
A benefit to the school
Still, having Sean at St. Thecla has benefitted the school, he said. Sean’s teachers have had to expand their repertoire of educational strategies, Gargano said, but that has made them better teachers, and every class that comes afterward has benefitted.
Shannon Nelson said that everyone — including the people who will encounter Sean’s classmates later in life — will benefit.
“I truly believe that these boys and girls attending Catholic schools are our future leaders,” she said. “They will be the ones running the society that Sean and his peers will be living in. The best way to ensure that they are doing that in a way that is supportive for individuals with special needs is for them to really know individuals with special needs.”