There had been a few students with disabilities who went through St. Augustine School, but in 2012, Abigail “Abby” Agudelo was the first with Down syndrome to enroll.
Friday, she graduated from the eighth grade.
Abigail’s journey started when her parents sought to find her a parochial education with small classes, which led them to St. Augustine, her mom, Wendy Agudelo, said.
Since Abigail started attending the Andover school, they’ve hired a special education director and opened their doors to accommodate more students, according to Principal Mark Daley.
“We’re a Catholic school, we are supposed to teach all of God’s children,” said Paula O’Dea, the admissions director who was principal when Abigail was first admitted.
“We decided — let’s give it a shot — and her parents were so accommodating,” she added.
Abigail was the school’s first student with a developmental disability that directly impacted how she learned, O’Dea said. Her teachers and school staff had to navigate educating in new and different ways.
“I’m so thankful to her parents for exploring other options and having enough faith in us,” O’Dea said. “There were struggles and times we had to ask, ‘will this work?’”
Ongoing meetings including Abigail’s teachers and parents navigated the best plan for her to succeed.
“We learned quickly that as a dedicated and progressive administrator — and former teacher — Mrs. O’Dea had a plan to ensure the school population accurately mirrored that of the community at large,” Wendy said.
“Her unchartered steps have become a model for other parochial schools within the Archdiocese of Boston umbrella, and the timing could not be more valuable as many parents, like us, often feel there are limited options for their children with unique needs, often avoiding the path least traveled,” she added.
Abigail’s attendance at St. Augustine “was the catalyst behind the growth of the special education program,” Daley said.
“The challenge of being a Catholic school is that you have fewer resources than a public school in the area. It’s about getting the resources, maximizing those resources and training the staff,” Daley said.
Now the school has about 30 students on formal Individualized Education Plans and an additional 20 students who receive other accommodations, Daley said.
“We took a leap of faith back then,” said O’Dea, who at the time was looking forward to handing Abigail her eighth-grade diploma. “And I’m forever grateful we did.”