Starting next school year, three or four students with special needs are expected to become part of the student body at Brother Rice High School. The school, 10001 S. Pulaski Ave., is the first Catholic high school on the South Side to offer an inclusion learning program. The Christian Brothers founded Brother Rice High School and named the program Mount Zion after the first school Blessed Edmund Rice founded in 1802. An encounter with a parent who has a son with Down Syndrome was the impetus for the program. Matthew Prunkle, dean of student life, will direct the new program. Prunkle said the father of a student attending a Catholic school on the South Side reached out to Brother Rice in frustration. The father asked why Brother Rice kept inviting his son to camps and tours when they did not offer programs for him. Prunkle spoke to the father and then approached Principal Bob Alberts about starting a program. Brother Rice had long admired Notre Dame College Prep’s Burke Scholars program for students with mild to moderate cognitive disabilities or significant learning disabilities and wanted to do something similar one day, Prunkle said. Alberts was on board, and Prunkle said he quickly reached out to the University of Notre Dame, which has a inclusion track as part of its Alliance for Catholic Education program. He also reached out to Lewis University, Saint Xavier University and the National Catholic Board on Full Inclusion for advice and resources. Brother Rice staff also visited Notre Dame College Prep in Niles, which started its program in 2009. Much work still has to be done, and the school will roll out the program slowly, with three to four students joining the program each year. Another family has expressed interest in sending a son there for high school. “There are these families that sent their children for Catholic education, and they might have pulled them in the meantime because the grammar school wasn’t able to meet their son’s needs, but they are dedicated to Catholic education,” he said. Brother Rice is committed to the program, Prunkle said. “We feel one of our strongest attributes is the community aspect, and they want their sons to be part of that,” he said. Mount Zion students will have classes such as English, reading and math on their own and will join the other students for classes such as theology and physical education. They can earn either a certificate that allows them to continue receiving special education services until they turn 22, or a modified diploma where students meet the graduation requirements for the State of Illinois, not Brother Rice High School. Both Prunkle and Alberts noted the benefits the program will have for the larger school community. In coeducational schools, girls often step up to be a nurturing presence to the students with special needs, but in an all-boys school, boys take on that role, they said. “We think that’s going to have a huge impact on our overall school community,” Prunkle said. “I think to be able to expose our boys to that, to be able to develop empathy within them, for them to be advocates for inclusion, it’s going to be a huge game changer for us.” To encourage that, Mount Zion students will be paired with peer mentors without disabilities who will provide academic and social support. “They will be like pseudo teacher’s aides,” he said. During one of his free periods, a student mentor will help a Mount Zion student as he attends a class. “I’ve already had more than a handful of current students who have reached out to me and said, ‘I want to be a part of this program in any way that I can,’” Prunkle said. “I really believe this is going to fit in great with our mission of inclusivity,” said Alberts. “We have essential elements [of a Christian Brother education], and one of them is to celebrate the value and dignity of each person and nurture the development of each person. I think this is exactly what we are meant to be doing.” Faculty and school board members are enthusiastic about the new program, he added. “I think it will be good for these kids coming in, but I think it might be even better for our students in the building,” he said.