Program helps students excel

A new program at Roncalli Catholic High School in Omaha is helping students with learning challenges – and its results go beyond academics.

For Josiah Miller, one of 13 freshmen helping kick off the Benilde program, it’s also helped him make friends and navigate his new school – plus he’s pulling all A’s and B’s.

"I don’t usually seek people out, but it’s helped me make really great friends," said Miller, who is on the autism spectrum. "Every time I step into the Benilde class, I feel welcomed."

Roncalli Catholic is the first school in Nebraska to use the program, which helps students hone their study skills, develop test-taking strategies and meet other needs, said Leah Critchfield, the school’s Benilde director. Students can attend for all four years of high school if needed, but the goal is to have them in the program a year or two, developing skills to function on their own.

"It’s a great program," Miller said. "It’s definitely helping me out academically and giving me the help I need to excel."

Miller’s mother, Karen, said the effort has been critically important for her son.

"He would not be thriving academically … without this program," she said.

Participants include students with learning challenges such as attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, autism, difficulties in reading and math, and physical impairments, Critchfield said.

"The program is going very well. We’ve just gotten back our first quarter data, and our average GPA is a 3.0 and our highest is a 3.8," she said.

Named after Lasallian educator St. Benilde Pierre Romançon, the program also has generated interest from other archdiocesan schools, said Critchfield, who recently gave a presentation to learning service coordinators, eliciting "a lot of great questions."

Michael Ashton, superintendent of Catholic schools, said the program aligns well with the archdiocese’s efforts to meet the needs of all students.

"It’s very encouraging to see Roncalli extending and pushing the limits of their instructional capacity with this program," Ashton said.

Meeting the needs of students includes having those in the program take a summer course, opening their schedules during the fall term for their Benilde class. For example, freshmen in the program take their first religion class in the summer, Critchfield said.

"This eased them in, and gave them time to get to know me and their peers, so by the time they got here in August, they already knew the building, they knew me and I knew their strengths and weaknesses," she said.

Coming from a small school – Holy Cross in Omaha – to a larger one, Miller was able to get a head start becoming acquainted with the school and developing a core group of friends, said his mother.

Other than the Benilde class, students take the same classes, meet the same academic requirements, and can participate in the same school activities as all other students.

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