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Count Her In
St. Francis embraces a very special student
By Cecily Hastings
Mia Siino is a 17-year-old sophomore at St. Francis High School. She is the third of four children in her family. It doesn’t take long after meeting Mia to discover she is a fun, outgoing and determined young woman. Mia also happens to have Down syndrome.
Mia tells me she loves working with little kids, dancing, hanging out at Starbucks, her friends and school. I find her enthusiasm contagious. “Her favorite day of the year is her birthday, and she loves to celebrate it for as long as possible,” says Mia’s mother, Karen Siino.
School counselor Nora Anderson says Mia is always first to jump in and help with whatever is needed. Mia’s mom says her daughter strives for more independence and plans to go to college, get married, work and live on her own one day.
Down syndrome is a genetic disorder where a person has an extra chromosome. The condition is associated with physical growth delays, characteristic facial features, and mild to moderate developmental and intellectual disability. A variety of therapies promote the greatest possible development, independence and productivity.
The best path forward for Mia so far has been attending St. Francis High School—a first for the school.
Mia went to public school from preschool through third grade. She was mostly in a special day class for students in special education. “We were told by our public neighborhood school that she could not attend there because they didn’t have the support for her. It was a very sad realization that she would have to go to whatever school the district chose for her based on her diagnosis of Down syndrome,” Karen says.
Mia’s parents learned about the benefits of inclusion and having their child attend general education classes. “When Mia was in kindergarten, she spent part of her day in the general ed class and did really well,” Karen says. “But more as guest and less as a student.”
The family pushed for more general education time, but always fell short of having Mia “belong” in those classes. “Also, the expectations of her were too low,” Karen says. “We just wanted teachers to presume competence and give Mia a chance with appropriate supports to be included in all aspects of the gen ed classes.”
Three other Siino children were attending St. Rose, a private Catholic elementary school, which was the family’s church community. “Mia loved the events at the school and started to ask about attending there,” her mother says.
She continues, “We started to learn more about inclusion in Catholic schools and were encouraged by a friend, Beth Foraker, who runs the National Catholic Board on Full Inclusion, to approach St. Rose about Mia’s attendance. The school was open and excited, and that was the start of six wonderful years for Mia.”
When Mia started at St. Rose, her teacher treated Mia like every other student until she indicated a need for extra help. At that point, help was provided. “This is what we wanted for Mia: to presume competence, to give appropriate challenges, and to really belong in the school community,” Karen says.
After graduation from eighth grade, Mia—who adores her older sister—wanted to follow her sibling’s path to St. Francis. “The more we learned about other Catholic high schools across the country that included students with intellectual disabilities, the more we felt that it was a possibility for Mia,” Karen says.
St. Francis strives to educate the whole student beyond academic instruction. As a college prep school dedicated to serving young women, it provides a community of faith, excellence, leadership and service in a Christian environment.
“The school was fantastic in allowing Mia to gain independence at her own pace,” Karen says. Mia’s counselor and teachers gave her enough support to feel safe while navigating high school as any other student.
“Those of us in the special needs community know that there are no ‘special’ grocery stores, restaurants and coffee shops for those with special needs,” Karen says. “St. Francis has allowed her to attend high school in a safe and loving way.”
“Mia has also had the opportunity to take a ministry leadership class and lead the school in prayer,” Elias Mendoza, the school’s principal, says. “Last year as a freshman, she was chosen by her peers to receive our Pillar of Faith award. We select a student that embodies their faith, lives out their faith and is an example to others.
“I’ve had students thank me for bringing Mia to St. Francis because she brings a unique gift to the school. Those around her are gaining a better perspective of those with different needs and how these students can be supportive, compassionate and inclusive.”
Mia’s inclusion benefits the student body and staff. “It shows her peers how capable and competent special people like Mia can be,” Mendoza says.
“The community at St. Francis has embraced Mia, and, in turn, her independence and confidence have soared,” Karen says. “Inclusion means that everyone wins!”
Cecily Hastings can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook and Instagram: @insidesacramento.