Did You Know? Notre Dame Special Services Department

Did you know that Notre Dame Regional High School offers robust special services opportunities to meet the individualized needs of students?

Notre Dame began offering learning services to students who struggled academically in the early 2000s, with students receiving case-by-case assistance from the then Guidance Office (now Counseling Office). Then, in the late 2000s, Notre Dame teacher Becki Essner (’76) formalized Study Skills as a course that devoted attention to the learning needs of students who could benefit from additional assistance.

Over the next decade, the school worked to meet the needs of a growing student population that could benefit from special services. As need increased, Notre Dame expanded its offering by hiring a full-time learning consultant in Alex Graves (’09), who has a Master of Arts in Special Education from Truman State University. 

With the addition of Graves in 2018, the special services offering at Notre Dame grew immensely.

“What started as Mrs. Becki Essner splitting her time between teaching art and working with our special services, has turned into Mrs. Alex Graves working solely with our special services,” said Assistant Principal and Dean of Student Affairs Paul Unterreiner. “Catholic schools have had a stigma surrounding them saying we can’t meet the needs of some students, forcing families to choose public education. With Mrs. Graves’ sole focus being special services, we are now equipped to offer a Catholic education to more students at Notre Dame Regional High School.”

Notre Dame’s current Special Service Department provides a variety of support and services; including, writing, coordinating and implementing Individualized Educational Plans (IEP) and 504 plans. 

Additionally, the school offers multiple sections of a Resource class that are available to students for academic, organizational and social skills support. Graves says she works with students in Resource class to break down topics and assignments in their individual classes. For example, in Math class, Graves works one-on-one with the student through practice problems to help make the problem easier to understand. She also works with students on specific work habits and study skills, with discussion on different types of study guides and how a student can utilize those to effectively study. Graves also works with students on different organizational methods to keep on track with classes and assignments.  

In addition to Graves’ full-time role as a learning specialist, Valarie Hulshof will be teaching a Resource section this upcoming school year. Hulshof, the school’s Media Center Director, is also a reading specialist with an experienced background working with students with dyslexia.

Gail Timpe, Notre Dame’s sophomore Theology teacher, also serves as a consultant to the Special Services Department. Timpe has a special education degree and has experience as an administrator in special education. She assists Graves with student observations in the classroom.  

“We hope to provide every child who walks into Notre Dame with the opportunity to learn in an inclusive environment, aimed at meeting their individual learning needs,” said Graves. “Our department strives to help all students succeed academically and socially, as well as prepare them for post-secondary transition.”

The department also offers co-taught general education classes. These classes include two teachers in the classroom, and allow for small groups and individualized interventions, evaluation and observation of students. Co-taught classes are chosen based on the number of students who need additional support in specific classes. In general, a Math section is co-taught every semester, but co-taught classes can change based on student need, and have included English I, Junior Composition, Earth Science and Civics. 

For the 2023-2024 school year, the Special Services Department is providing support to 50 students. Forty of those students are in the school’s Resource class, and 10 students are receiving 504 or IEP accommodations in the general classroom.

Unterreiner said, “To watch Mrs. Graves and our co-teachers work with our students and see the engagement and learning take place, is truly incredible. Notre Dame is blessed with an outstanding Special Services Department.”