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The Goal Is Inclusion: A Conversation with Elizabeth Dombrowski

November 13, 2023


Elizabeth Dombrowski is the Executive Director of “All Belong,” a Christ-centered nonprofit organization in Michigan whose vision is to advance a world in which every student with a disability is known, needed, and experiences belonging.

The desire for Catholic schools to welcome students with disabilities is gaining momentum among parents and Catholic advocacy groups. Since I mentioned “All Belong” in a back-to-school essay that focused on the need that families are voicing for Catholic schools to accept all of their children, I thought it would be interesting to follow up with some questions for Elizabeth. Many of these questions are questions that have been asked of me, and here are her expert responses.

Also, I want to thank Word on Fire Institute member Brian Dykstra for introducing me to Elizabeth and for setting up a wonderful conversation between us. It has resulted in a friendship around our common interests and this interview.

Mark: Elizabeth, thanks so much for agreeing to share your work with our readers. I have mentioned your organization, “All Belong,” a couple of times, so it seemed appropriate to ask you to share some of your insights with us personally. First, tell everyone a bit of your history and mission at “All Belong.” 

Elizabeth: Thank you so much, Mark. I’m honored to share about our work and thrilled that Word on Fire is highlighting the need for our communities to respond to individuals of all abilities. “All Belong” has been around in various iterations since 1979 when we began as the “Christian Learning Center” to serve students with intellectual disabilities.

. . . we all share the desire to meet those needs and allow students with disabilities to thrive in our Christ-centered schools.

Today, our vision is that every student with a disability is known, needed, and experiences belonging in his or her Christ-centered school. To accomplish that, we partner with more than one hundred Christ-centered schools across North America to support them on their journey. As a nonprofit, we rely on a wonderful community of donors to make this work possible and affordable for the schools with whom we partner.

We provide schools with an experienced team of experts who respond to individual student needs. This allows us to respond to the needs of nearly any student in a non-public school setting. Our teacher consultants, school psychologists, and school social workers come alongside our schools to provide them with expertise and resources that they might not otherwise have access to.

Mark: There seems to be a growing interest in inclusive education in the world of Catholic education—at least among parents of children who have intellectual and developmental disabilities. How many Catholic schools have you assisted in the past? Are you working with some now? I’m curious if you see the same interest in inclusive education in non-Catholic, Christ-centered schools.

Elizabeth: Historically we served solely in Reformed Christian schools, but one of the rewarding aspects of this work is that it is grounded in theology that is shared across the Body of Christ. In a time when many things can divide our faith communities, it’s fulfilling to be able to cross boundaries into a range of Christ-centered schools with a focus on including students with disabilities.

We are seeing a growing interest in inclusive education across all of these types of schools. Specifically to your question about Catholic schools, we have worked with more than fifteen Catholic schools as well as the Office of Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Grand Rapids, Michigan. We see great opportunities and interest from Catholic schools across the country, including the upcoming USCCB statement that you mentioned in an earlier article. As everyone in education knows, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated and highlighted the unmet needs that students have, and we all share the desire to meet those needs and allow students with disabilities to thrive in our Christ-centered schools.

Mark: Catholic and other Christian schools are notoriously underfunded. What would you say to those whose response to parent’s wishes for an inclusive school is that “we simply can’t afford it, and it would take resources away from our other students”?

Elizabeth: First, there is no research to the effect that inclusion takes resources from other students, so we can’t assume that will be the outcome. In fact, most research on inclusive education shows that those additional supports meant for students with disabilities end up benefiting all students. So we immediately have to question the assumptions that lead to that statement.

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When inclusive education is seen as part of a full system of supports available if and when students need them, all students benefit. It is not an ‘optional’ program designed for one student; it is a flexible system that helps to ensure that every student is learning in our schools. Isn’t that what our schools exist to do?

Key to this design of a flexible system of supports is the idea of tuition equity and serving whole families. Look around your school’s car line. Are there any families dropping off some students, and then driving off to another school for one kid? Chances are that one student may have more need for support. By some measures, almost a quarter of our population has a disability, so the chances are high that these families exist in all schools. These families, in our experience, also are the most likely to wantall of their kids to attend the same school.

Tuition equity means that you do not charge more for students who require additional supports to be successful in school. Therefore, the school can meet the needs of every student, honor the communal commitment to our kids, and live out our theology in a really practical way. We simply request that the whole family makes a commitment to attend the same school and not just enroll the student with a disability.

All of these practices reinforce one another and contribute to the sustainability of your school. National statistics show that one in every four or five people have a disability, and we can apply that to our schools as well.  When we can serve one student with the disability, we are more likely to retain them and their whole family throughout their educational journey. When schools limit enrollment to only students who achieve, they are undermining their sustainability as well as their mission.

There is an adage that if you want to learn what someone values, look at their calendar and their pocketbook. Your budget as a school reflects your values and priorities. What is it saying to families and students with disabilities?

Mark: The benefit of an inclusive school for children with disabilities seems obvious. Can you share about the benefits to the other students in the school?

Elizabeth: The practice of investing in inclusive, flexible systems of supports, rather than programs only for certain students, allows for the school to clearly place support services in the center of its mission statement. Catholic and other Christian schools are typically nonprofits and, therefore, their goal is to accomplish their mission. If our mission is to nurture faith in students, research has proven that supporting students with disabilities increases the likelihood of all alumni walking with God. We cannot take such a central part of our mission and treat it as a service for just a few when it impacts the entire community.

Be curious and prayerful about the opportunities coming to you, and your community will never be the same.

We have heard so many stories of the ways in which students with disabilities change their communities, and we love to share them on our website and our blog. One of my favorites is about a student who taught her classmates the creation story, but since she was nonverbal, she did it through motions and with the help of a classmate who was struggling to engage with the lesson. The teacher was not only forever converted to inclusive education through that experience, but she saw students struggling in other ways gain confidence and learn more about themselves too.

We like to remind educators that each one of us is incomplete without the other—without a community inclusive of students of all abilities. We are created for interdependence. When we open our minds to the possibilities that God might have in store for us, we are teaching and modeling a life of faith for our children too.

Mark: I have a growing list of individuals and families who have reached out and are interested in inclusive Catholic education. Some have had bad experiences with pastors and parish schools that have refused to serve them in the past and are feeling defeated. They don’t want their children in a public school, but they don’t think they have any other options. What advice would you give to those families? Is there a strategy that you recommend to those who are trying to start an inclusive program in their school? What would you suggest they share with  their pastors or school principals?

Elizabeth: As Christians, I believe that we are called to hope. I know it can be so hard, and so frustrating, to be turned away from your community. My best advice for parents, pastors, and school principals is this: imagine what might be possible and let go of assumptions.

For parents, this means approaching the school with a hope for the possibilities, with partnership as the goal. It is so important for the parent and the school to commit to becoming a team to serve students with disabilities. This will mean listening well to one another well, respecting the educational experts on inclusion, and generously sharing your expertise about your child with the school. And I encourage you to have hope that even if the response is a no, it may be a ‘no for now’ but could change in the future.

For pastors, this means thinking of and focusing on the benefits for all students and families of this model of education. Be curious and prayerful about the opportunities coming to you, and your community will never be the same. It will be changed for the better by the presence of children with disabilities in your community, as these remarkable children will shape the employers, government officials, teachers, and leaders of the future.

For school principals, imagining the possibilities often means digging much deeper than labels and getting to know the actual student who is differently abled. Diagnoses, labels, and reports can be a tool for understanding a student’s gifts and needs, but they are never the full picture. Honor the image of God in every student by seeking to find and unlock the gifts he or she will bring to your community. Be curious about the hopes and dreams that parents bring to you for their kids.

Finally, I’d encourage you to reach out to us and to advocates within your community. We have posted many resources on All Belong’s website, and I hope you will contact us for help!