By Elizabeth Lowe
Caroline Bodley threatened to cut her hair short and wear baggy clothes to look like the boy with Down syndrome at Baltimore’s Mount St. Joseph High School so she, too, could attend a Catholic school.
Caroline did neither.
Persistence and conversations with the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s Department of Catholic Schools and the Catholic Coalition for Special Education led the Bodley family to schools that accepted Caroline, who has Down syndrome.
A Catonsville resident, Caroline had attended sixth grade at Sacred Heart of Mary School in Graceland Park. When it closed in 2010, she transferred to St. Clement Mary Hofbauer School in Rosedale, where she graduated in May. Now the 15-year-old is an incoming freshman at The Seton Keough High School in Baltimore.
“I think it’s a real opportunity for the Catholic community to see something and run with it,” said Mary Bodley, Caroline’s mother. “I think if people are willing and receptive and don’t have prejudices, Caroline is a whole different story. It’s a great story because we expect her to succeed and so does she.”
Pamela Walters was her principal at both St. Clement and Sacred Heart of Mary.
“She was instantly part of the school,” Walters said, of her entering St. Clement. “We’ve taken so much more than we’ve been asked to give. We’ve benefited more than the Bodley family has benefited from finding us.”
The experience with Caroline was the first time St. Clement had accepted a student with Caroline’s special needs. Most archdiocese Catholic schools aren’t equipped with the resources to do so.
Dennis Bodley said educating students such as his daughter “isn’t as hard as you think. Caroline really learned and progressed. It isn’t some gigantic headache like some have imagined.”
Caroline’s education has benefited from the archdiocese’s PRIDE (Pupils Receiving Inclusive Diversified Education) program, for students with learning disabilities, and a Catholic Coalition for Special Education grant that paid for Caroline’s para-educator at St. Clement.
There is “a long success rate of students in PRIDE who are successful high school and college students,” Walters said.
Over two years at St. Clement, Caroline advanced academically by three grade levels, Walters said.
“We’ve seen what has come out of it,” Walters said, of the St. Clement community. “It is the very core of what we are. We support life anywhere. Every child, their individual abilities were created by God. Let’s meet them where they are.”
Teaching a student with Down syndrome means “everything has to be modified,” Walters said.
That included an iPad for reading, writing and emailing, a hobby of Caroline’s. She will use an iPad at Seton Keough, like all students there.
Mary Jo Puglisi, who was the PRIDE coordinator at St. Clement and is now the director of a new program for students with language-based learning disabilities at Catonsville’s Mount de Sales Academy, said Caroline “is a challenge in the best possible way.”
“She works very hard, she puts her best effort forward,” Puglisi said. “She’s big energy and lots of fun to be around.”
Caroline was expected to conduct herself the same as her peers; the only difference was in her academic rigor, noted Puglisi, who said, “we raise the bar high.”
Caroline is “as ready as any other eighth-grader” for high school, said Puglisi, who described Caroline as independent, stubborn and occasionally sarcastic.
“You can joke with her,” Puglisi said. “That was really a surprise to me. Sometimes she will catch me off guard.”
At St. Clement, Caroline participated in the drama, bowling and sewing clubs, and helped to direct traffic in the parking lot. She was also in the choir, made rosaries and was an altar server, which Puglisi said was a “huge part of her spiritual growth.”
Caroline was confirmed in May at Our Lady of Hope in Dundalk. The family attends Mass at St. Mark in Catonsville.
In addition to the Special Olympics, Caroline is a member of the Hunting Hills Swim Club, a recreational team, and plans to compete in the sport for Seton Keough.
Caroline said she’s “excited (about Seton Keough) because there are clubs there.”
Caroline’s 18-year-old brother, Michael, is a 2012 graduate of Mount St. Joseph who will attend Elon (N.C.) University this fall. Her 13-year-old sister, Bridget, is an incoming freshman at Mount de Sales Academy.
“We really never treated Caroline any different than Michael and Bridget,” Mary Bodley said. “Why wouldn’t we want to do for Caroline what we do for our other two children?”
Growing up, Caroline asked why she couldn’t go to Catholic school like her siblings, Mary Bodley said.
“We knew she could and she did and she did it beautifully,” Mary Bodley said.
Before her first day of high school, Caroline will be a student speaker Aug. 20 at the archdiocese’s Catholic schools convocation, said Dr. Barbara McGraw Edmondson, superintendent of Catholic schools.
“This convocation will mark the start of a professional development series that will better prepare faculty and staff to welcome students with diverse learning needs,” Edmondson wrote in an email to the Catholic Review.
When Caroline graduates with her Seton Keough class in 2016, she will receive a certificate of completion, rather than a diploma, said Angela Calamari, the school’s principal.
Students who receive a diploma have met all state standards, including a certain number of credits and a specific curriculum, Calamari said, while a certificate of completion states that students have completed four years of high school but may not have met all state standards for graduation.
To meet Caroline’s academic needs, Seton Keough is starting an Options program through its existing Marillac. The two serve students with special needs and learning differences, respectively, Calamari said.
“We are called to teach all students,” Calamari said. “That’s why we are beginning this program. We felt we could accommodate her (Caroline). We’re really excited about having her come and we look forward to moving her forward and actually learning from her.
“She’s going to be a part of the freshmen class and everything else and I think that’s what she’s excited about.”
At least one part of Caroline’s journey will get easier.
Beyond the financial sacrifice of sending three children to Catholic schools, the Bodleys drove 34 miles roundtrip from their Catonsville home to St. Clement in Rosedale – twice each school day, once in the morning and again in the afternoon.
“It hasn’t always been easy,” Mary Bodley said, but it’s worth doing.”
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Copyright © Aug. 10, 2012 CatholicReview.org