Outreach and Harrisburg Diocese: Journey to a new frontier

  • Outreach and Harrisburg Diocese: Journey to a new frontier
    By Amanda S. Maloney
    Support Specialist, Vista Outreach Services

    For the past two and a half years, Vista Outreach Services has been working to foster a relationship with the Catholic schools in the Harrisburg Diocese.
    Vista Outreach Services started by supporting one student at Harrisburg Catholic Elementary School during the 2014-15 school year. Currently, Amy Hensel and I are working with five students across the Diocese. The staff at each school is interested and willing to help their students with autism to succeed.

    Catholic schools follow a different format from public schools or even The Vista School. They build their curriculum and structure around the teachings of the Catholic Church. Students who attend these schools have no Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), as public school students are required to have. Staff have received some training in autism and how to teach social skills, accommodate, or modify their curriculum to help their students with autism.

    In the Catholic school environment, Vista Outreach Services provides consultation to staff on teaching social skills, developing visuals to use in their classrooms, using Applied Behavior Analysis techniques, and recording and analyzing data; and provides awareness and overall explanation of what autism is and how it affects their students.

    Recently, Vista Outreach Services expanded beyond consultation to providing direct services to students in small groups or individual sessions. These sessions allow students to learn critically needed skills they can transfer to other settings.

    “As the relationship has grown, we are now being asked to work directly with their students,” said Kendra Peacock, director of Vista Outreach Services. “This means we are able to have a bigger impact. There is only so much you can do within consultation to a teacher who is teaching 25 to 30 other students at the same time. When we are able to shift from ‘consult only’ to direct service, it means we can teach our students the additional skills they truly need and would not otherwise attain.”

    Staff and students have been welcoming and often seek out answers to their questions or to problems they might have. Teachers have been implementing those suggestions. Not only have these suggestions improved the lives of the students with autism, but they also have improved all students’ lives.

    Earlier this year, for example, teachers at Harrisburg Catholic Elementary School wanted to change the behavior of a student getting out of his seat. The staff was willing to take data and report it. They have been instrumental in successfully implementing a replacement behavior plan with built-in sensory breaks, along with prompting and reinforcing the targeted behavior. This plan has had a profound effect not only on the one student who has autism, but also on the classroom as a whole, due to many other students with the “getting out of their seats” problem behavior. This is truly a testament to the relationship between the Outreach staff and the school staff.
    “The student from Harrisburg Catholic has grown so much in his personal growth since the time Vista has been working with him,” said David Rushinski, principal of Harrisburg Catholic Elementary School. “Before our partnership began, our team was questioning for how much longer we would be able to continue to give him the support he needed to be successful in school. Through our partnership, we have not only been able to retain him in our school, but also have seen him thrive in areas we had some concerns about a few years ago.”

    Another example of the strong relationship between our schools took place at Sacred Heart, where a student was leaving the school building. Vista Outreach staff worked with teachers to explore the events leading up to this behavior and the consequences of it. Together, Vista and the teacher developed some easy strategies, such as a new placement for the student’s desk. We also worked with the teacher to identify the student’s signs of stress and provide him with coping tools, adapt and modify work requirements, and incorporate a safety plan for the teacher and all of the students in the classroom.

    “The work we’re doing in Catholic schools is improving lives,” Kendra Peacock said. “The only way we can provide these services is because of businesses that select us for their Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) contributions. There are currently five families receiving services from us who would never get this help if it weren’t for this scholarship program.”

    The following businesses generously supports the work of Vista Outreach Services in Catholic schools through their EITC contributions to The Vista School’s K-12 Scholarship Organization: Demme Learning, Orrstown Bank, Phillips Facilities Management Group, Select Specialty Hospital – Pittsburgh/UPMC, Inc., The Bryn Mawr Trust Company, and UGI Utilities, Inc.

    We are excited to continue exploring this new relationship and frontier with the Catholic schools within the Harrisburg Diocese. Every year the Vista Outreach staff learns more about the schools in our community and how our training at Vista can be applied across these various school environments. This relationship is successful because together, we are “putting the students first!”

    Photo by Amy Hensel


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