Danielle Price wears many hats at Vandebilt Catholic High School as a teacher, softball coach, mentor, and most recently, director of the HOPE program. In her 19th year of teaching, she recently returned to home to Houma from Lafayette where she was an integral member of a group of educators who spearheaded the Options Program at St. Thomas More High School. The Options Program, which she later became the director of, was the first of its kind in the state to offer individualized and inclusive opportunities to special needs students within a Catholic high school setting.
The HOPE program at Vandebilt Catholic High School is in its third year and currently has four students. HOPE, which stands for Higher Options for Persons with Exceptionalities, is a program that focuses on students with disabilities and offers them an opportunity to receive a normalized Catholic high school experience, as well as teach students the skills needed to be successful and independent off campus. The students join the five-year program in 8th grade and it extends until 12th grade. Danielle describes the program as a modified inclusion setting, where the students have the opportunity to go into the regular classes and join in extracurricular activities.
“Our program accepts high functioning social behavior,” explains Danielle. “The exceptionalities can range from autism to down syndrome. Basically they come in and we assess their needs; we look at the whole person.”
One of the goals for the students is to get involved in the activities they are interested in, that they might not have had the chance to partake in before. “They can choose anything that they like,” says Danielle, “I will try and get them into an activity or class.”
Caroline Newman, Vandebilt’s first HOPE student, has been able to join the rest of the students in activities she enjoys such as the choir and dance team.
“I was in charge of their music and timer,” says Caroline of her time with the dance team. “I started and stopped their music when they needed and paused and reset their timer.” Caroline expressed her joy at being a member of the team, sharing how the girls on the team became her sisters.
A major part of the HOPE program is both on campus and off campus job training. The students are given the opportunity to hold jobs at Vandebilt in order to prepare them for the real world. Caroline’s job on campus is working in the front office with the school secretary. She answers and transfers the phone calls that come into the school as well as acts as a guide to visitors, making sure they know where they are going. Another student works as a library assistant, turning off computers and closing down shop for the day. The jobs are important because they can be implemented off of campus in many different job settings. Caroline will be the first student that receives off campus job training, which the HOPE program starts when the students reach their junior year.
The HOPE students also have their own garden and chicken coop located on campus. They have seven chickens and a handful of chicks that they interact with each day. The HOPE program is grateful to Greg and Terri Schawb who donated the coop and Vandebilt teacher Blaine Pitre who donated the adult chickens and some experience in tending to the chickens. The students collect fresh eggs from the coop and tend to their garden, learning skills that will be invaluable to them on their journey for independence.
The student body at VCH has been “exceptionally” receptive to the HOPE program. This past year the school started the HOPE Buddy Program that brought the student body and the HOPE students together. They put on a very successful fundraising event called Trunk or Treat for Halloween at the school’s track for any individual with disabilities and their families to enjoy.
“The HOPE Program at Vandebilt is an integral part of what makes our school special,” says Jeremy Gueldner, principal. “This program not only improves the lives of the four students it services, it improves the lives of every person on our campus. It teaches all of us about the importance of acceptance, love, patience, and understanding. The work that Ms. Price has done has really taken our program to the next level. I am excited to see our program grow and broaden its impact on our entire community.”
“Without the administration and staff saying yes to this program, it would not have happened,” says Danielle. “I credit the parents who would not settle for a no. They are the fabric of this program. I am in awe everyday at the success we have had. It is a great testament to our Dioceses and what they are willing to do. This program is not about me… It is a beautiful ministry.”