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St. Paul school wins award for wheelchair accommodation

July 16, 2018

In this photo taken June 7, 2018, Nathan Leber, right, and his mother, Lisa Datta, smile in their home in the Prospect Park neighborhood of Minneapolis. Datta was happy to enroll Nathan at St. Thomas More Catholic School on St. Paul's Summit Avenue last year, after nine Twin Cities Catholic K-8 schools turned him away because they did not have elevators. (Maddie DeBilzan/Pioneer Press via AP)

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Nathan Leber, who just completed sixth grade at St. Thomas More Catholic School in St. Paul, loves talking about history with his grandpa. He’s reading a book about World War II that he thinks is “super interesting.” He loves to swim competitively, he gets annoyed with his 4-year-old brother, and his favorite video game is “Fortnite.” Everything about Nathan screams “sixth-grade boy.”

The only difference is that he has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair.

When nine Twin Cities Catholic K-8 schools turned Leber away because they didn’t have elevators, his mother, Lisa Datta, who lives in the Prospect Park neighborhood of Minneapolis, was taken by surprise.

Datta said it breaks her heart when her son can’t do things other kids take for granted — like visit both levels of the haunted house at the Minnesota State Fair, or walk up the stairs to ride down a waterslide, or climb the front stoop of a house to trick-or-treat.

Not being able to get a Catholic education, as Datta herself had had, was almost on that list.

“That’s one of the things I’ve learned from having a kid in a wheelchair,” Datta told the Pioneer Press . “The world is really not accessible.”

Datta finally found a solution when she visited St. Thomas More Catholic School on St. Paul’s Summit Avenue and met first-year principal Pat Lofton. Although the school’s elevator is old and doesn’t always work properly, Lofton immediately told Datta that her son could enroll.

“It was heart-wrenching to talk to this mom and hear her talk about the number of schools she reached out to,” Lofton said.

Last school year, Leber was the only student of nearly 300 at St. Thomas More in a wheelchair. Facilities manager Tom Kohler worked to make it possible.

Sometimes, Leber said, the elevator would get stuck and he’d have to dial for help. He could always count on a maintenance man to help him right away.

“Usually, it wasn’t scary,” Leber said.

In June, Lofton, Kohler and administrative assistant Laurie Barrett accepted a Dandy Award from the National Catholic Board on Full Inclusion.

Datta is thankful to St. Thomas More. She’s disappointed, however, that it took her so long to find a school willing to accommodate Nathan. St. Thomas More costs about $1,000 more per year than other schools she called, but because it was the only school with open enrollment and an elevator, she didn’t have much of a choice.

Lofton said St. Thomas More already was accessible, but staff had to make minor adjustments. For example, the door that’s accessible to wheelchairs has to be unlocked before Leber gets to school; and once when the elevator didn’t work, two staff members carried Leber down the stairs. Lofton said it’s more difficult for other Catholic schools to take in students like Leber because they have facilities issues.

“But obstacles are mind-sets,” he said.

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires public schools to meet students’ special needs at no cost to the families. But the law doesn’t apply to privately funded schools, and many of them turn away special-needs students.

Mike Boyle, director of the Andrew M. Greeley Center for Catholic Education at Loyola University in Chicago, has studied inclusiveness at Catholic schools.

“We have to recognize that Catholic schools don’t have the funding that their public school counterparts do,” Boyle said. “You have to look at (their) resources to see if they can accommodate the needs of these students.”

Beth Foraker, founder and director of the National Catholic Board on Full Inclusion, said Catholic schools with low budgets still have resources to employ. She said schools have made their facilities accessible by asking for money from their diocese, adjusting their budgets and fundraising.

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Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com

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