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Group founded by parents supports special education programs at Catholic schools

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. A grant from the Catholic Coalition for Special Education supported the new inclusion program at St. John’s School. (CS photo/Ashley Barnas)

Disappointed that her son with a disability did not have the chance to attend Catholic school, Francesca Pellegrino has made it her life’s work to expand those opportunities for families.

Pellegrino is the founder and president of the Catholic Coalition for Special Education, Inc., a nonprofit organization that supports the creation and expansion of special education instruction and programs in Catholics schools in Washington, D.C., and the state of Maryland. 

In a message on the group’s website, Pellegrino wrote, “Parents of children with and without disabilities share the very same dreams: to raise each child to meet his or her potential and offer that child the very best opportunities. It is this dream that drives us at CCSE, a dream that offers the opportunity for Catholic education.”

Pellegrino pointed out in that message how “all children are welcomed into God’s family at Baptism, and Jesus teaches us to welcome all the little children… And yet when it comes to education, many Catholic children with disabilities are unable to attend their parish schools due to limited resources.”

She experienced that with her son Alex, who was born with an intellectual disability and mild cerebral palsy. Pellegrino couldn’t find a Catholic school for him to attend.

“It was very frustrating. It did put me in a crisis of faith… I wasn’t finding the support in the Church that I expected to find. It made me angry. It was no one’s particular fault,” she said.

Explaining how the Catholic Coalition for Special Education began, Pellegrino said, “I decided to see if I could help facilitate that change. I started talking with other parents. I realized there were a lot of them out there who wanted a Catholic education for their children with a disability.”

Since CCSE’s founding by a group of parents including Pellegrino in 2004, the organization has supported special education programs in 32 Catholic schools in The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington and in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

The Catholic Coalition for Special Education’s Believe in Me! Program supports the implementation of special education instruction and programs in K-12 Catholic schools in Maryland and Washington, D.C., awarding grants to hire special education teachers and para-educators. Those grants are also used by Catholic schools to purchase specialized classroom equipment and supplies and for professional development for teachers and administrators.

Pellegrino said the organization’s grants go toward “anything a Catholic school needs to be successful teaching a student with a disability.”

CCSE is holding its 2022 Fall Family Festival and Grant Awards ceremony on Sunday Oct. 2, from 3-6 p.m. in Silver Spring, Maryland. The event will include school success stories, activities for all ages and a barbecue dinner. (For more information, see the organization’s website at

The three grants being awarded by CCSE for this school year include a grant for St. John’s School in Hollywood, Maryland, to hire a one-on-one instructional aide for a pre-kindergarten student with Down syndrome. (See related story, pages 16-17.)

Pellegrino praised schools like St. John’s for opening their doors to students with disabilities. “When the students have a classmate with a disability, they learn students with a disability are more similar to them then they are different… It totally transforms their lives. These children with disabilities have a remarkable way of shaping the lives of everyone they touch and everyone they encounter, in a positive way,” she said.

The group also offers technical assistance for special education services at Catholic schools and provides tuition assistance grants for Catholic school teachers and other professionals to pursue advanced degrees in special education. In addition, CCSE’s family advocacy and support outreach helps families of children with disabilities navigate what services are available to them.

Margaret Kenney White, the special education manager for The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, praised the Catholic Coalition for Special Education, “for helping families, who value and desire a Catholic education, to be a part of our Catholic school communities.” 

The archdiocesan official said she is “excited that our schools are opening their doors to additional students with special learning needs. Serving our students with special needs is not only a way for us to live out our Catholic faith, but a way for our communities to be enhanced and enriched for the better. When we strive to include and support individuals with special learning needs, we are acting within the scope of Catholic Social Teaching and are recognizing the dignity and beauty of all individuals that are created in God’s image.”  

Kenney White said her office “is a resource for principals, teachers, and school communities to help expand their abilities to not only include more students with specialized education needs, but also strive to provide the best services and support to students who are currently enrolled in our schools.”

Catholic Coalition for Special Education founder and president Francesca Pellegrino gave the commencement address to the graduating seniors of the class of 2022 from the Academy of the Holy Cross during the school’s June 6 commencement ceremony at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.  (Photo courtesy of the Academy of the Holy Cross)

Pellegrino noted that her son Alex, now 31, has worked for the past several years at St. Peter’s School on Capitol Hill. “He’s a teaching assistant there, and he loves it… I was always hoping he’d be able to go to Catholic school, but it wasn’t meant to be. But he found this roundabout way to go to Catholic school!”

The longtime member of the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament said she has been inspired by her son’s life. “Alex has strengthened my faith and brought me closer to God,” she said.

To reach the Catholic Coalition for Special Education, Inc., call 301-933-8844 or email . 

 To reach Margaret Kenney White, the special education manager for The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, call (301) 853-4458 or email