When asked what his favorite thing is about attending Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, 10th grade student Raymond Tetschner said, “It is a family.”

Tetschner is the first student to be a part of the school’s new St. Andre Program, which is designed to support students with intellectual disabilities in an inclusive setting. It is named after St. André Bessette, a child with disabilities who wanted to become a Holy Cross brother. This was difficult because Holy Cross was founded to be a teaching order, and he was illiterate. But after taking his vows, he became a doorman at a school, where he greeted people every day for 40 years.

During that time, “he taught a lot about love, kindness and hope,” explained Marco Clark, the president and CEO of Bishop McNamara.

“I’ve been in Catholic education for 30 years, and I think a Catholic school should be a place for all children,” said Clark. “Often, there are barriers of socioeconomics, barriers of learning styles, barriers of geography. One of those barriers should not be intellectual disabilities. If we are truly a pro-life community, that means we need to be pro-lifespan.”

The program, which complements the school’s already existing St. Joseph Program for students with high-incidence disabilities, has been in the works for years as the school has been researching how to go about building a program for students with intellectual disabilities. But over the past year, it all fell into place.

Abigail Greer, the school’s director of student supportand Anne Dillon, the former director of the St. Joseph program who now serves as the director of Special Education for the Archdiocese of Washington, visited the Academy of the Holy Cross in Kensington last year to see how they run their Moreau Options Program, which serves students with developmental and intellectual disabilities. Then, just a few months later, Greer met Michelle Tetschner, Raymond’s mom, who had recently moved to the Washington area. Tetschner called the meeting a “God-cident.”

“It was always my dream to have Raymond in Catholic high school,” said Tetschner, who recalled how in Arizona, they had four Catholic elementary schools say ‘no’ to accepting Raymond before one said ‘yes.’

“We had a real crisis of faith when four said ‘no,’” she explained, adding that sending him to a Catholic school “is especially deep in our hearts” because Raymond was adopted through Catholic social services.

After Tetschner and Greer met, Raymond applied to the school, shadowed, and was accepted, and the family moved to Upper Marlboro to be closer to Bishop McNamara.

“We were ready to say ‘yes’ and they were ready to say ‘yes’ to us,” said Greer.

To fund the new program, Bishop McNamara High School received a grant from the Catholic Coalition of Special Education, which has awarded nearly 60 grants to 30 Catholic schools in eight Maryland counties totaling more than $1,000,000 since 2004. The program also received funding from Tribute 21, a component fund of the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region, dedicated to raising awareness and raising funds to support those with Down syndrome.

Since Holy Cross, an all-girls school, had the only inclusion program of this type in the Archdiocese of Washington, there had been no high-school level inclusion program in the archdiocese for boys with intellectual disabilities before this year. Francesca Pellegrino, the president and founder of the Catholic Coalition for Special Education, commended Bishop McNamara on providing that much-needed education.

“The leaders of Bishop McNamara High School have had both the vision and the courage to respond to the call of serving students with developmental and intellectual disabilities,” she said. “We commend McNamara in this important undertaking which CCSE is happy to support with grant funds and technical assistance. “

Raymond and his parents work with his teachers to develop his schedule, which includes a mixture of college preparatory classes, electives, and one-on-one instruction with Tiffany Jones, the coordinator of the St. Andre Program. Raymond said his favorite class is theology, because he likes to talk about God.

“I am very passionate about inclusion,” said Michelle Tetschner. “Inclusion is a statement that reflects how perfectly God created us. It should be the norm.”

Tetschner noted that if Raymond had attended a public school, he would have been segregated from the rest of his peers, while inclusion at Bishop McNamara allows him to be in the same classroom as the other students for most subjects.

“Being fully included not only helps Raymond. It helps other kids as well,” she said, noting that when they grow up and become doctors and lawyers or in other professions, they will remember being in class with Raymond and not be as fearful of interacting with people who have disabilities.

Agreeing, Greer noted that in a world where people are often insulated from differing opinions, “McNamara is a place where we’ve tried to purposely make sure people are exposed to other backgrounds,” and this program is another way of doing that.

“Raymond is getting a Catholic education he can’t get at any other high school, and the students are getting exposure to how to interact with people with disabilities,” she explained.

When Raymond first began at the school, Tetschner said the students seemed a little fearful, but now that he is in their classes, “it is so heartwarming to see one of the big football players yell down the hall, ‘Hi Raymond!’”

“They are starting to take an interest in him and be friends,” she said.

Outside of the classroom, Raymond participates fully in the life of the school community. He is a manager of the football team, is playing the role of a pirate in the school’s upcoming play, Pirates of Penzance, and is also in the choir.

“Raymond has a lot of strengths,” his mom said, noting his sense of humor and his love for playing the drums. Next year, he hopes to join the school’s band.

“Raymond has made our school better,” said Clark. “We learn to see the dignity of all people.”

Clark said the future of the program is “whatever God has in store for us,” but added that he knows there is a large community of people who are looking for a Catholic school for children with disabilities.

“We will continue to grow [and] we will continue to keep our doors open to more students, because we know it is the right thing to do and it makes our school better,” said Clark. “…I am grateful to the Tetschner family for believing in Bishop McNamara.”

While he understands the fears that some schools face when thinking about starting a similar program, Clark said he thinks it is necessary to “just plunge forward, knowing the Holy Spirit is guiding you and there is grace to be gained, and figure it out as you go along.”

“If schools are willing to put as much money toward athletics and art, why are we not willing to put money toward meeting the needs of all students?” he asked.

Clark noted that he is grateful for the leadership of the Catholic Coalition of Special Education, “for working as hard as they have for a decade to help open hearts and minds in the Catholic school community.”

Pellegrino said the Catholic Coalition for Special Education “hopes that its partnership with McNamara will pave the way for other Catholic high schools to open their doors to students with disabilities to help address the long line of students and families who are seeking a Catholic high school to call ‘home.’”