Archdiocesan schools of special education change the lives of students and their parents

By Nadia Maria Smith
CS&T Staff Writer

Christina Bogdan, a mother of 10 children, didn’t know that her doctor had ordered genetic testing when she was pregnant with her seventh child, Andrew. The results indicated that her child might be born with Down syndrome. Though subsequent testing presented mixed results, Bogdan and her husband, Tom, were sent to get genetic counseling.

According to Bogdan, the worst case scenarios were presented during the genetic counseling, feeding fears that a child born with disabilities would have a horrible “quality of life.”

Nothing, said Bogdan, could be further from the truth.

“Andrew is the greatest joy in the world. He enriches our lives and shows our family, friends and parish communities of St. Bede and Our Lady of Perpetual Help how to love unconditionally. He represents God’s unconditional love for us,” she said.

Andrew attends Archangels Academy, School of Special Education in Levittown, one of the five archdiocesan schools of special education, where he is challenged to live up to his greatest potential.

“Andrew entered school unable to recognize a letter of the alphabet,” Bogdan said. “Now he is reading a variety of sight words. He can actually read sentences at 5 and a half years of age. I don’t think I was even reading at that age!”

She describes her son as healthy, happy, energetic, inquisitive, bright and full of love.

“He fights with his brothers and sisters like any other child, but doesn’t hold grudges,” she said. “Among the six girls and four boys who enliven our home, Andrew fits right into the daily rhythm and give-and-take of family life.”

Like Archangels Academy, the other schools of special education – Our Lady of Confidence Day School, St. Lucy Day School for Children with Visual Impairments, Archbishop Ryan School for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children and St. Katherine Day School – give students the support to achieve anything within their means.

Helen Dillon can’t describe the joy she felt when she discovered Our Lady of Confidence Day School in Philadelphia for her 7-year-old son, Nathaniel.

“Walking through those doors was like being embraced by arms that care and comfort, and it was an immediate reaction, the likes of which I have never before or since experienced,” she said. “This past September, at the first school meeting, one of the new parents said to me with tears in her eyes, ‘Is this place for real? I feel like I’m dreaming. It seems too good to be true. For the first time since I had my son I feel normal.'”

Dillon and her husband Eric, parishioners of St. Katherine of Siena in Philadelphia, were shocked when the second of their three children was born with Down syndrome. They had no idea that there was a problem until he was born, and Helen Dillon remembers the fear.

“At first I saw it as a tragedy – I feel ashamed saying those words now because at that time I had no idea of the treasure I was being given,” she said. “I couldn’t believe, still can’t, that I was chosen to parent this beautiful, magical child. God saw in me something I didn’t see in myself until I had this precious boy.”

She describes Nathaniel as happy, innocent and playful.

“He’s got smiles and hugs for everyone he meets; he giggles all the time. He’s genuine love running on two feet,” she said. “He is such a good and loving person that he teaches tolerance to all the kids he comes across.”

The Dillons’ biggest challenge was finding a good school for their son, so when they found out about Our Lady of Confidence, they felt it was an answer to prayers.

“I wanted something that would academically meet and challenge him as an inspanidual with special needs but at the same time I wanted him to be part of the community,” she explained. “The staff at Our Lady of Confidence is supportive without any prejudices or lower expectations. His teachers know what he can do so they don’t expect anything less of him and they do it with so much love. They look at these little people in awe and feel blessed to have them in their classrooms.”

Special education was not something Donna and John Dowling wanted for their only son, who was born blind at birth.

Dowling, who was pregnant with twin boys, had gone into labor almost four months early. Benjamin did not survive. John did, but because he was born before his retinas could attach, he was born blind.

“We were determined he would not be classified ‘disabled.’ He was ‘just blind,'” she said. “We thought by sending him to a special school it would be holding him back.”

However, at age 5, John weighed just 22 pounds and he was still in diapers. He only drank from a bottle and ate yogurt or baby food. He went to Hershey Medical Center for intense feeding therapy.

Once he was potty trained and able to eat and drink normal food, John started Kindergarten in public school where he was taught Braille one hour a day, three days a week. He was in a fully sighted class of 26 and he was lost in the shuffle, Donna Dowling said.

“In December 2006, we met a woman that introduced us to Acting Without Boundaries: Performing Arts for Children with Disabilities,” she said. “John has always loved all types of music: country, hip hop, oldies. He loves to listen and sing along. There really isn’t a song he does not know. John loves that he gets to act and sing on stage with a real audience. It was here that we were told about St. Lucy Day School for Children with Visual Impairments.”

Dowling toured the school with her husband and “the minute I walked into the doors of SLDS there was no doubt in my mind this was the school my son needed to attend.”

“John now gets Braille all day and is getting caught up on all the work he missed out on in his other school,” she said.

John sings with the archdiocesan One Flock Choir and has taught himself how to play the piano and the guitar by ear.

He also won third place in an international art contest and had his work exhibited at an art show at the Middletown Center for Performing Arts. And he is learning to play golf.

“If you saw him you wouldn’t realize he was blind because he does everything everyone else does. Nothing holds him back,” Dowling said. “He’s very outgoing and friendly. He’s amazing. And thanks to the support, encouragement and expertise of the teachers and staff at St. Lucy Day School for Children with Visual Impairments only God knows what John’s next endeavor can and will be.”

CS&T staff writer Nadia Maria Smith may be reached at or (215) 965-4614.