Nonprofit Spotlight: Teaching Together

Teaching Together hires adults with cognitive disabilities as Catholic-school classroom aides

Marita Forr—an adult with special needs, and a Special Olympics athlete—always dreamed of being a teacher. But it was her younger sister, Mary, who became one instead, now teaching middle-school history, religion, and Latin at St. Peter School in ­Washington, D.C. With Marita in mind, Mary “saw the great need for inclusion of people with special needs” in schooling.

Mary’s insight was that, like her sister, many adults with special needs are more interested in serving than in being served, and have a lot to offer. So she took action. Her budding nonprofit, Teaching Together, provides employment for adults with cognitive disabilities in Catholic schools, placing them as classroom aides.

Individuals with intellectual disabilities have very high unemployment rates. Meanwhile, students sometimes lack ­opportunities to interact with and learn from such people. Teaching Together addresses both issues, giving persons with special needs meaningful employment and experiences, while bringing valuable perspective, life experience, and human warmth to their schools.

Forr, a graduate of the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for ­Catholic ­Education teacher-training program, launched the concept on a volunteer basis in Atlanta, where she was serving her required two-year inner-city teaching commitment. A co-worker’s daughter who had Down syndrome was looking for a job, and Forr was eager to have her as a classroom aide. When Forr moved to D.C., she brought the program to her new school. St. Peter School on Capitol Hill hired two aides in January 2015. And this January there will be special-needs aides in at least three D.C. Catholic schools.

Teaching Together helps interested schools that can afford to pay an aide’s salary set up the program. If the school itself cannot pay the salary, Teaching Together steps in, with funds from donors and online contributions.

In addition to bringing employment to the aides and new outlooks to students, the program helps busy teachers. Forr’s current assistant, Alex Pellegrino, helps her by grading multiple-choice tests, sorting paperwork, and making copies. He also has a second job at Giant supermarket and is active in his church. Another aide, Anna Allen, has regular opportunities to teach short lessons to the third-grade students, to help with times tables, and to listen to students ­reading out loud. She moonlights at a preschool where she offers religious instruction, and at a vacation Bible school in the summer.

St. Peter School principal Jennifer Ketchum was immediately open to the idea of Teaching Together, seeing how it could benefit the entire school community. Discussions about diversity are often limited to ethnic or socio-economic factors, Ketchum says, but people with “developmental delays or special needs also contribute to a truly diverse environment,” and bring unique skills and offerings. “Recognizing that they are just like us, but with their own set of gifts, is something that has been beneficial for our children.”

Allen’s and Pellegrino’s classroom presence fosters a different sense of kindness, Forr says, and brings lessons that other teachers cannot offer. Allen, who was born with a serious brain injury, has shared her experience with students, and discussed how she overcame it. “Miss Allen is a natural teacher,” Forr says. She is firm with the third-graders, but shows a “high level of respect and love” for each pupil. She always kneels to their level when she speaks to them, and her words carry a different nuance when she explains “why we’re not laughing at each other.”

Pellegrino high-fives each student as they walk into the classroom—he has no favorites, Forr says, and his positive attitude is infectious. “When Mr. Pellegrino comes in here every day with joy on his face, it teaches our students that life needs to be faced with a smile.” He enjoys eating lunch with a different middle-school class each Tuesday and Wednesday.

Forr has seen growth in her ­students and the aides alike, thanks to their ­interplay. She admits there is some extra work for teachers at first. “You have to figure out how to have someone else in your classroom.” Once job duties are in place, though, it’s easy, she says. And ­having extra help always at hand makes her more effective.

The program, says principal Ketchum, “takes very little for such a big return.” More information is available at ­TeachingTogetherDC.com.