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Catholic teen with special needs heads to high school

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SAN DIEGO — Adam Hank made the most of his seven years at All Hallows Academy.

During his last year at the school, prior to the shift from in-person instruction to distance learning in response to COVID-19, the 15-year-old served as the eighth grade representative for student council, played his fifth season on the basketball team, and even tried out a new team sport — flag football.

His mother, Sharla, proudly reported that he had been “the hit at all of the junior high dances.” And his principal, Mary Skeen, appreciated the high-five she could count on receiving from him every morning as she welcomed students to a new day of school.

Adam, who graduated from All Hallows Academy on June 5, esteemed by his teachers, fellow students and school parents, is now a freshman at Cathedral Catholic High School.

He is a Catholic school success story. But that success didn’t come easily. It was earned day by day and in the face of the many challenges that come with being a leukemia survivor who has Down syndrome.

Fortunately, he always had support.

Adam enrolled at All Hallows as a second-grader, after having tried public and charter schools as well as homeschooling.

His parents, Mike and Sharla Hank, wanted a safe environment for their son, a place where he would receive the support he needed and have opportunities for more socialization. They found it at All Hallows Academy.

“The first time I met him, I knew that he belonged here,” recalled Skeen, who at the time was the school’s vice principal and director of its learning center, which works with students who have academic, social and emotional needs.

“I knew that we were going to do everything we could to make it work for him here at the Academy,” said Skeen, who saw it as growth opportunity for the school community as well.

Adam looks back fondly over his time at All Hallows.

“I liked it because everyone was nice to me,” said Adam, who singled out his best friends by name.

Initially, Sharla and Mike Hank thought that other class parents might be concerned that a student with special needs would impede classroom instruction and lessen the quality of education their own child would receive. But the Hanks’ worries never materialized.

In fact, far from hindering anything, Adam “absolutely enriched the learning experience” for his classmates, Skeen said.

She noted that All Hallows Academy’s teaching philosophy is guided by what it identifies as “The Ten Virtues”: Christian Witness, Compassion, Responsibility, Respect, Tolerance, Self-Discipline, Courage, Leadership, Cooperation, and Honesty.

“All of our virtues have been impacted by Adam’s presence on campus,” she said, explaining that his being there provided opportunities for students to demonstrate compassion and respect, among other virtues.

Adam himself modeled courage in facing his challenges, something that was witnessed by his schoolmates, she said.

In the many moments when the Hanks took pride in their son’s accomplishments in the classroom, on the school stage or on the sports field, they would notice that his classmates and their parents were visibly moved as well.

“It was times such as those when we realized that inclusion wasn’t only about what the school could do for Adam, but just as importantly, what Adam brought to the school,” said Sharla Hank. “In moments like these, Adam reminds us that we are all unique and each of us deserves the opportunity to contribute to God’s family in our own, unique way.”

Both Hank and Skeen said that it was a team effort to create the sort of school environment in which Adam was able to thrive.

The Hank family chose to provide a student support assistant to accompany him at school every day. His teachers also accommodated his needs by allowing for such things as additional time for test-taking and modifications to assignments, such as allowing him to make a video instead of delivering a live class presentation.

Supportive coaches, who were also school parents, were responsible for Adam’s participation in team sports. One coach set Sharla Hank at ease by assuring her that Adam had equal standing with his basketball teammates; another convinced the Hanks that their son would enjoy flag football.

“We just kind of figured it out together,” said Sharla Hank, who with her husband established the Catholic Special Education Fund through the Catholic Community Foundation of San Diego (ccfsd.org) in late 2016 to equip local Catholic schools to better accommodate students with special needs.

All Hallows Academy is one of 17 Catholic schools in the Diocese of San Diego that currently have learning support programs, said Dr. Julie Cantillon, director of the diocesan Office for Schools.

“It aligns to our Catholic social teaching that we are reaching out to those on the margins … but I also think we recognize how much being more inclusive contributes to the overall experience for all students and all teachers in the school environment as well,” said Cantillon.

She said the diocese started a Learning Support Network about five years ago that, prior to the ongoing pandemic and the resulting restrictions on gatherings, had been holding monthly meetings to “share the good news” about what local schools are already doing in this area and to show what more could be done.

Cantillon said “one of the roadblocks” to helping students with special needs can be the question of what happens when they reach high school age. She recommends focusing on what can be done now to help students rather than thinking about potential barriers “at the next level.”

For her, it’s a matter of faith, of remembering that “God has His hand in this.”

Already, Cathedral Catholic High School has emerged as a solid option for local students with special needs, she said, and Mater Dei Catholic High School is also expanding its learning support program.

Cathedral Catholic is recognized nationally as having one of the best inclusive education programs at the high school level.

Dr. Megan Burton, director of special education at Cathedral Catholic High School, oversees the school’s three programs for students with varying levels of special needs: the Learning Center, the Academy Program, and the Options Program. More than 220 students are currently enrolled in one of these programs, including students who have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), autism, Down syndrome and learning disabilities.

“[Cathedral Catholic] offers Adam the opportunity to be included in a typical Catholic high school experience by incorporating modified curriculum, peer mentor support and inclusive classroom practices,” she said. “These opportunities extend beyond the classroom setting to include social opportunities ranging from school dances to football games.”

Though he loved his time at All Hallows, Adam Hank was ready to move on to the next stage in his education.

“I am so excited for high school,” he said. “I am going to meet new friends and [there will be] new things to learn.”

Sharla Hank has noticed her son’s excitement.

“Adam has been telling us for a long time he wanted to go to Cathedral,” said his mother, who explained that Adam had gotten to know the campus after playing basketball games and attending a basketball camp at the school.

About a year and a half ago, mother and son attended an open house at Cathedral Catholic. Noticing the size of the campus, which reminded him of a university, Adam assumed that there were dorms and that he would be living on campus.

“He was ready to move. That’s how much he loved Cathedral,” Sharla Hank said. “We still joke about that.”

Skeen said she hopes that her school’s recent graduate makes good friends in high school, that he finds an area of study that he is passionate about, and also “that he is loved as much as he was loved while he was here at All Hallows by his teachers and his fellow classmates.”

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