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‘Every day with Norah is a gift’: Pre-K class at St. John’s School in Hollywood, Maryland, includes little girl with Down syndrome

Norah Smith, at right, a pre-kindergarten student with Down syndrome who is now attending St. John’s Catholic School in Hollywood, Maryland, is held by Emma Davis, her one-on-one instructional assistant. A grant from the Catholic Coalition for Special Education enabled the Southern Maryland school to hire Davis and welcome Norah into the pre-kindergarten class there for this school year. See related story and photos, pages 16-17. (CS photo/Ashley Barnas)

This school year, the 19 pre-kindergarten students at St. John’s Catholic School in Hollywood, Maryland, will be learning lessons about working and playing together and sharpening their skills with letters, numbers, colors and shapes.

On the third week of school, Trish Mattingly, St. John’s pre-kindergarten teacher, said a key priority has been helping the young students “getting their schedule and routine down, (understanding) what comes next in our day.”

But those children are also learning something else, as this year St. John’s School has launched a new inclusion program and welcomed Norah Smith, a 4-year-old girl with Down syndrome, into the pre-kindergarten class.

Susan McDonough, St. John’s principal, said having Norah as part of the school community will be a learning experience not only for her pre-K classmates, but for all 230 students there. “They’ll learn about inclusivity and accepting those with differences, (that) God made us all in His image and likeness,” she said, later adding, “We’re learning along with her.”

Norah Smith, second from left, sits with pre-kindergarten classmates at St. John’s Catholic School in Hollwyood, Maryland. Sitting at left is Joe Wenzel, and at right next to Norah are Vincent Sevrence and Felicity Naegele. Norah, who is 4 and has Down syndrome, is a new pre-kindergarten student at St. John’s this year. (CS photo/Ashley Barnas)

Last fall, Norah’s parents Dale and Sarah Smith – who are members of St. John Francis Regis Parish in Hollywood – approached the principal, to see if their daughter could be a pre-K student at St. John’s this school year, to join her older brother, Bailey Russell, now an eighth grader there.

“We just liked the community aspect of the church and school being together. It’s the same parents, teachers and students,” said Sarah Smith. “We feel like it’s a very supportive environment for the kids. It’s important to us that our kids develop their sense of faith both at home and at school from early on.”

Their son Bailey has attended St. John’s since kindergarten. “We see the faith that’s grown (in him),” Dale Smith said. “You see how that effects what he does in his life.”

The parents noted how their son volunteers at church events, including helping out at parish dinners, and he recently was a junior counselor at St. John’s Summer Program, helping with camp activities and attending Mass and Adoration with the campers and other counselors.

“We just want to make sure she (Norah) has every opportunity to learn just as much as he has,” Sarah Smith said.

St. John’s principal applied for a grant from the Catholic Coalition for Special Education for a new inclusion program at the school. “I titled it ‘No Boundaries for Norah,’” she said.

McDonough noted that the school over the years has been serving students with autism spectrum disorders and learning differences like dyslexia. “They (fellow students there) include them. They love them, they interact with them,” she said.

The grant was awarded, and in August, Francesca Pellegrino, the founder and president of the Catholic Coalition for Special Education, Inc., met with school officials to discuss the grant supporting a full-time instructional assistant and technical help so St. John’s School could welcome Norah Smith into the pre-kindergarten class.

Joined by Emma Davis, her one-on-one instructional assistant, pre-K student Norah Smith plays on the playground at St. John’s School in Hollywood, Maryland. (CS photo/Ashley Barnas)

In an interview, McDonough said, “What does this mean to St. John’s? It’s about social justice. It’s about making a Catholic education available to students regardless of their needs… This opens the door for families for their children to receive a Catholic education.”

When Pellegrino visited the school, the principal told her, “I’m very excited for us to expand what we’re doing.”

Offering a prayer, Father Ray Schmidt, the pastor of St. John Francis Regis Parish, spoke about what a blessing it is to have Norah Smith attending the school. “We’re so grateful for Norah,” he said.

‘She’s one of them’

As the school day was winding down on a recent afternoon, Norah Smith with her blonde hair in pigtails was happily darting around the St. John’s playground with her pre-K classmates, accompanied by her smiling one-on-one instructional assistant Emma Davis, a recent college graduate.

Norah was wearing her specially made school uniform, a maroon and gray plaid jumper with a stitched St. John’s Eagle logo from Lands’ End. Her new uniform had arrived that week, and it fit her small frame perfectly, along with her white blouse and tan Sperry Top-Sider shoes.

“She’s a peanut,” her father Dale Smith said jokingly of his daughter, who weighs about 25 lbs. and stands nearly 3-feet-tall. After health complications, she has only recently begun eating solid foods, and she relies on a gastrointestinal tube for hydration and medication.

Trish Mattingly, her pre-kindergarten teacher, said, “She’s doing fantastic. She’s an amazing little girl. The kids love her and play with her. She’s one of them.”

Norah Smith and Julian Anderson, a pre-kindergarten classmate, play together on the playground at St. John’s School in Hollywood, Maryland. (CS photo/Ashley Barnas)

At the beginning of the year, she told the students about “how we’re all different sizes. She’s the same age as they are, just a little smaller. (They recognize) she’s a pre-kindergartener, too. It’s a beautiful thing to see.”

They also had a baby doll in the classroom with a G-tube attached, so the children could understand how Norah receives liquids into her system.

“When they see Norah, they don’t see a child with special needs… They just see her as another child in the classroom,” Mattingly said, adding that her classmates understand that due to her size, she walks and runs slower than them. She added, “They include her in playing and everything they’re doing. They look out for her.”

Mattingly – who is assisted in the class by pre-K aide Kelli Welch – said that teaching pre-kindergarteners socialization skills, how to work well and play with others, is something that they emphasize. “And they are doing that with Norah,” she said.

Dale and Sarah Smith, who work as local police officers, said in an interview they are very happy with how their daughter is doing in her first weeks at St. John’s School.

“She’s doing great,” Sarah Smith said. “Really great!” her husband added.

Norah “seems to really enjoy school,” he mother said. “She waves goodbye to me, and she runs to her aide.” 

Asked about her daughter’s personality, Sarah Smith said, “For being non-verbal, we can still describe her as boisterous. She’s very active and determined.”

Their daughter loves being around other children, her mother said, adding, “She’s very smart. Coming into pre-K, she was able to identify numbers and letters and shapes and colors.”

Since she was very young, Norah has been a problem solver, Sarah Smith said, explaining how as a baby, she would stack her books and toys to try to climb over her safety gates.

Norah, who knows between 20 and 30 signs in American Sign Language, is trying to communicate more verbally since she began attending St. John’s School.

“We’re hearing more sounds, definitely ‘yeses’ and ‘no’s,” her mother said.

Dale Smith said that St. John’s School opening its doors to Norah reflects what the Catholic Church is all about.

“To me, it’s a continuation of what it has always been, the Church embracing its members, embracing its people, being like Christ. She’s made by him, and the Church sees that,” Dale Smith said. “I couldn’t imagine a better community for her to be a part of.”

Sarah Smith added, “St. John’s is home to us. I grew up in this church. I went to C.C.D. here.” Her parents have been longtime parishioners there, and her mother attended St. John’s School. Dale Smith grew up in Pittsburgh and now attends St. John’s Church with his wife and their two children, and his mother teaches religious education classes to kindergarten-aged children at the parish.

Sarah and Dale Smith greet their daughter Norah outside St. John’s Catholic School in Hollywood, Maryland. This year, St. John’s School launched a new inclusion program, welcoming Norah who has Down syndrome into the pre-kindergarten class there. (CS photo/Ashley Barnas)

Finding hope at St. John’s Church

When Sarah Smith was 13 weeks pregnant, she found out that her baby would have Down syndrome.

“At times I questioned God,” Dale Smith said. “… I was on my knees praying, (asking) ‘Why was this happening to us?”

The Smiths usually attended Mass early on Sunday mornings, but around that time, they happened to go to a Saturday vigil Mass at St. John’s. A family was sitting near them, and then they saw that family’s little girl peek over the pew at them. She had Down syndrome.

Dale Smith said then he knew “everything is going to be okay. This family is like ours. I think God saw us struggling.”

When Norah was born at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, she needed surgery immediately, because her stomach and intestines were not connected. She also had breathing problems, and spent the first 99 days of her life being cared for in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit.

“From the moment she was born, she always rose to the challenge,” Dale Smith said. “She reminds me every day that I can keep going. If she can do this, I can do this.”

He added, “There were so many times I didn’t think she was going to make it. She reminds me to be faithful.”

Sarah Smith said that Norah “is still very much a typical 4-year-old.”

“Every day with Norah is a gift,” she said, adding that there are trying times, as her care involves rounds of physical, occupational and speech therapy.

Norah Smith, a pre-kindergarten student at St. John’s School in Hollywood, Maryland, plays on the slide at her school’s playground, as Emma Davis, her one-on-one instructional assistant, watches. (CS photo/Ashley Barnas)

Praising her daughter’s spirit, Sarah Smith said, “She has just been successful, at every obstacle put in her way, she surpasses. She’s shown (that) even if anything is hard in life, you can do it, if you have support and love and family.”

Norah “makes us better,” her mother said.

Dale Smith added, “She reminds us every day of grace.”

An aide and ‘best friend’

Asked about her role as Norah’s one-on-one instructional assistant, Emma Davis summarized it as serving as the little girl’s “best friend.”

“She’s doing awesome. She’s so smart,” Davis said, explaining that in addition to being able to point out many letters of the alphabet, Norah “knows all of her colors and most of her shapes. Her parents are amazing.”

For more than 10 years, Davis served at St. John’s Summer Program, first as a camp counselor and most recently as the director of volunteers. This summer, Susan McDonough, St. John’s principal, pulled Davis aside at camp and said, “I have a job for you,” explaining that they were looking for a one-on-one instructional assistant to work with Norah in the pre-kindergarten class at the school.

“Then I met her, and (realized) I can’t do anything else. I fell in love with her parents, and I fell in love with her,” she said.

With help from Emma Davis, her one-on-one instructional assistant, Norah Smith plays with a hula hoop at the playground of St. John’s School in Hollywood, Maryland. Watching in the background at right is Norah’s pre-kindergarten classmate Vincent Sevrence. (CS photo/Ashley Barnas)

This spring, Davis graduated from Ave Maria University in Florida with a degree in health science. Initially, she was a nursing major at the university, and that has helped her make a seamless transition to working with Norah and assisting with her gastrointestinal tube and any other special medical assistance she might need.

Davis said that on the first day of school, she heard one of the little boys in the pre-kindergarten class say, “I’m going to protect her.”

“They realize she’s different, but she’s one of them,” Davis said.

Norah Smith, at left, sits with pre-kindergarten classmate Emma Greer at St. John’s School in Hollywood, Maryland. The boy at right is their classmate Sawyer Hill. (CS photo/Ashley Barnas

Norah’s classroom aide said “one of my favorite parts is getting to know her better, and teaching her things she’ll be able to use for the rest of her life.”

Verifying Sarah Smith’s account of how Norah’s school days begin, Davis said, “She runs to me and gives me a big hug.”

Davis added that her approach to working with Norah is “trying to be the person God wants me to be for her.” She added, “It has been so special just to love her as God loves her.”

During a break in the classroom, the little girl with blue eyes smiled as she played with Davis, who put on a video of the “Baby Shark” song that was a rollicking anthem for the Washington Nationals’ 2019 World Series championship team, and Norah gestured and danced along with the song. 

Nearby, the pre-kindergarten students’ backpacks were placed on their desks, including Norah’s pink backpack with her name in green letters that was decorated with cartoon sloths.

On a nearby table was a statue of Jesus embracing children, across from a large wall display with the wording, “I am a child of God” with 19 handprints with the names of each pre-K student, including Norah.

“St. John’s is such a loving community. God just really made it work,” Davis said, adding, “She (Norah) has added so much to our lives.”

Norah Smith, a pre-kindergarten student with Down syndrome who is now attending St. John’s School in Hollywood, Maryland, peeks from playground equipment outside the school. (CS photo/Ashley Barnas)