WARWICK — Bishop Hendricken High School will commemorate a major milestone in its history, as the 2023-2024 school year marks the 15th anniversary of the start of the Brother Thomas Leto Options Program, the special education program at Bishop Hendricken.
The program bears the name of Brother Thomas Leto, the then-president of Bishop Hendricken who was instrumental in the founding of the program. The inspiration for the establishment of the program was the struggles of a student in the Bishop Hendricken community, Philip Murray.
Murray, who came from a devout Catholic family, had a strong desire to attend Hendricken after seeing the positive experiences of his older brother, Michael.
Unfortunately, over the course of his freshman year, Murray struggled to pass his courses. Yet, Brother Leto, instead of asking Murray to leave the school, worked with his mother, Martha Murray, to seek ways to help him. After researching various special education programs at schools throughout the country, particularly at Catholic schools, Brother Leto learned about the Options Program, a special education program at Paul VI Catholic school in Chantilly, Virginia.
After discussions with Paul VI School, Brother Leto sought to introduce the program to Bishop Hendricken, basing the curriculum and teaching methods on a modification of their program.
A gift from an anonymous donor allowed Bishop Hendricken to begin developing resources to fund it, hiring Cara Fusco, the first coordinator of the program, who did much to develop the curriculum.
A strong emphasis of the program is the creation of a sense of solidarity between students in the Options Program and the larger student body.
The program follows what is called a “modified inclusion program.”
Certain classes, such as English, math, and the life skills course, are self-contained courses in which students in the Options Program study with their peers under teachers directly involved in the program. These courses have a more practical element to them, teaching students practical life skills to help them with life after graduation.
Yet, in science, theology and any elective courses, students in the Options Program study side-by-side with the larger student body. Students outside of the Options Program will volunteer to be peer mentors, accompanying students to their classes and working with teachers to modify the course work for those they mentor.
This dynamic instills in students both within and outside the Options Program the realization that they are all members of a common student body.
This is something clearly seen in the athletic events connected with the Options Program, including the Unified Sports Program and Special Olympics, which many members of the student body enthusiastically help with or attend.
“Since its first days of planning the Options Program…Brother Thomas Leto, CFC, then-president of Bishop Hendricken High School, had a vision of young men who learn differently to be part of our educational opportunities here,” said Father Robert Marciano, the president of Bishop Hendricken High School, and pastor of St. Kevin Parish in Warwick.
He said that the Options Program has had a far-reaching effect in changing the lives of the Options men who come to the school by increasing their knowledge, faith and strength of personality while inspiring the peer mentors to work for a better future.
This reflects what Father Marciano calls the “mission of Catholic education,” which he describes as instilling “the moral and spiritual principles and foundations that we are proud of.”
Vanessa Cordillo, the director of academic support services and the coordinator of the peer mentor program at Bishop Hendricken, said that all of this is rooted in, and helps to reinforce, a major element of the Catholic faith, namely the duty we all have to treat one another with a sense of kindness.
“We teach the students in the Options Program that that’s how they should be, and I think the mentors understand that overwhelmingly,” Cordillo told the Rhode Island Catholic. “The speeches that we hear at the end of the four years when the seniors talk about what they have taken away from helping the students, I think that that’s the most rewarding piece.”
Natalie Kassimian, the assistant principal of Bishop Hendricken high school, said that both the students and peer mentors learn that they share much in common.
“When I work with the larger population of the school, my message is always, ‘Everyone has struggles. Everyone has different struggles. But we need to take care of each other.’ In the Options Program, if these kids have struggles socially, if they have trouble academically, they have a mentor to help them, they have a community to help them,” Kassimian continued.
Joshua Tucker, a member of the Hendricken class of 2019, provided a firsthand account of how this educational emphasis played out in his own experiences.
“I have noticed that the students in the Options Program and the larger student body had a strong connection by being included in some of the regular education classes,” Tucker said, noting the sense of solidarity created. This enabled him to rise above his own limitations and challenges by doing work on the same level as other students.
He said the biggest moral and spiritual lessons that he learned are to be of service for others and to keep a relationship with God (always pray).
“Those lessons have helped me transform my life (professionally) since Hendricken by taking on more roles on my college campus to expand my leadership and interpersonal skills,” Tucker said.
Cordillo noted how Mark DeCiccio, the principal of Bishop Hendricken High School, and Father Marciano have a strong desire to create a robust learning environment in every aspect of the school, including the Options Program.
This expresses itself in their policy of creating open communication between the administration and the heads of the various departments and programs, and in creating a sense of attentiveness to the needs that teachers bring to their attention.
Cordillo pointed out that the Options Program represents the mission of the Christian Brothers who founded the school through its commitment to help those most in need.
As Father Brian Morris, the chaplain of Bishop Hendricken and the pastor of St. Anthony and Christ the King parishes in West Warwick, pointed out, this reflects one of the most foundational moral teachings of Christ.
“Honestly, I think that what Jesus said fits very well here: ‘Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of Mine, you did for Me’ (Matthew 25:40),” Father Morris said, adding that the Options Program provides students and their families with a program explicitly rooted in Christian ideals.
“I think that until this program was created, young men who struggled to learn like these young men do were left to either go to the public schools, or to have to spend excessive amounts of money for private programs that are not based in the Christian faith,” Father Morris said.