Michael and Penny Michalak founded the Immaculata Classical Academy in 2010 intentionally to include students like their daughter, Elena, who has Down syndrome. The benefits of this model are widely shared by the whole school community.
The couple saw a need for a Catholic school in which students like their daughter would not be segregated from their siblings. They wanted to keep their children together without compromising educational quality or spiritual formation.
“A classical education is, I think, the best education for a child with special needs because it is an education in everything that is beautiful, true, and good. It is perfect for these children,” Penny Michalak told the Catholic News Agency.
The school is shaped by a distinctly Christian ethos where “Prayer is the air we breathe,” says Mrs. Michalak. “Our whole philosophy is to teach every child as if we were teaching the Christ child, so that is how we handle each and every student.”
“You can’t learn compassion in a book,” says Michael Michalek. This virtue is formed at Immaculata where students learn “the ability to give of yourself to help others” continually.
The ethos of a school matters tremendously for forming the students that attend it. “Schools constitute their own moral ecosystems and are sites that advance their own particular views about human life and the just society,” write James Davison Hunter and Ryan Olson in The Content of Their Character, a new publication from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. Students at Immaculata are immersed not only in a story of goodness, truth, and beauty, but also in a community that cherishes students with special needs. The particularity of firmly held beliefs about human life and the just society—and the lived community that embodies them—are at the core of character formation.
“Michael sees the founding of a school like Immaculata as the natural Catholic response at a moment in history when children with Down syndrome are especially at risk,” reports the CNA.
Michael Michalak says, “Look at what the Catholic Church has done throughout history: We see orphans; we build orphanages. We see sick people; we build hospitals. It is in this particular time and place that we saw the need to take the lead on this and to start a school that incorporates the whole family.”
Immaculata Classical Academy created this video for students to share what they love about this environment. Teachers in other schools can use this as a prompt in their own classrooms to invite students of all abilities to reflect on the benefits of learning together.