By Amy White
The Texas Catholic
For 60 years, Notre Dame School of Dallas has stayed ahead of the times.
When resources for special needs students were few and far between in the 1960s, the Dallas school became a place where these students could receive an education created with them in mind.
Notre Dame School was founded specifically to serve students with developmental disabilities. The school was instituted by the School Sisters of Notre Dame in 1963, 12 years before President Gerald Ford passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), legislation that mandated special education for students with disabilities.
This year, Notre Dame School celebrates 60 years. The School Sisters celebrate 190 years.
“The School Sisters of Notre Dame were really quite progressive in how they wanted to help this community of kids,” said Angela O’Brien, a board member of the school and mother to 19-year-old Notre Dame student, Casey.
Casey has been at Notre Dame School for eight years and will graduate in 2026. She grew up in Lewisville, where she went to elementary school with her older brother, Dan. Though her elementary community was kind, Casey felt like she was different. She was a student with Down syndrome surrounded by neurotypical classmates. In fifth grade, she began experiencing increased anxiety.
“We were seeing that it was no longer the right place for her,” O’Brien said. “So, we took a look at Notre Dame School.”
Casey attended a trial day at Notre Dame. Her confidence bloomed.
“She had a presentation in her backpack that she was supposed to give at her elementary school in fifth grade, but she was too afraid to do it,” O’Brien said. “That day, she read the presentation to the class at Notre Dame School. We knew immediately this was the place for her.”
Notre Dame School was a place Casey could feel understood, capable, and confident.
Notre Dame School emphasizes an education in independence skills. Students are taught the knowledge they’ll need to function as independently as possible within their communities.
“We’re very much about self-determination and self-advocacy and knowing our strengths, limits, and when to ask for help,” said Carmen Fernandez, principal of the school.
Fernandez has served as the school’s principal for the past two years, but she began working with the school as a music teacher in 1989.
“Personal safety is extremely important, and social skills are very important,” Fernandez said. “So, we concentrate a lot in those areas.”
Garrett Martin, a functional skills teacher at Notre Dame, helps students develop these skills in self-sufficiency.
Martin first learned of Notre Dame School in second grade when his twin brother, Andrew, began attending as a student. Martin has taught at the school since 2019.
“Functional skills are about just trying to be as practical as possible for these students who have some difficulty,” Martin said. “I teach them a wide variety of things.”
On Mondays, Martin teaches his students community skills, including who to call in an emergency, what to do during a fire drill, and how to recognize safety signs in the community. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are dedicated to vocabulary and reading; and on Thursdays and Fridays, the class covers math and concepts of time.
Martin will sometimes rearrange his classroom to simulate a situation in which students would need to utilize their money-handling skills.
“They’re engaging in a scenario where they’ve got to read a price tag or they have to read a menu. They’re given fake money and they’ve got to pay the bill,” he said.
“Sometimes society, parents, and teachers can handicap [special needs students] by always jumping in to help them,” Martin explained. “I try to get them to exercise their skills in such a way that they can flourish as much as possible and be as independent as possible.”
Notre Dame School also encourages independence through its vocational training program.
“Our students learn best, not only by classroom activities, but also by going into the community,” Fernandez said. “We’re taking over 100 students off-campus weekly—either at a job site or at a community-based instruction experience—so that they’re able to generalize those skills that they learn in the classroom out in the community.”
A Place Their Own
Instead of establishing small accommodations to support special needs students, Notre Dame designs its curriculum with its specific students in mind.
“It’s a very individualized curriculum,” Fernandez said. “We find what students’ strengths are—from visual learners to kinesthetic learners to tactile learners.”
This unique orientation of the school allows for students not simply to be accommodated but to truly be at home.
“When Grace was born, I remember being so fearful that Grace would never have friends,” recalled Kelly Kile, a reading teacher at the school and mother of Grace, a 27-year-old Notre Dame student.
As an adolescent, Grace attended a small public school in Richardson.
“The kids were precious and sweet to Grace and loved her,” Kile said, “but there came a point when Grace couldn’t keep up with the conversations, couldn’t keep up with the social life stuff.”
Kile recalled a birthday party that Grace attended as a child.
“I saw all the little girls sitting around in a circle giggling. I watched Grace as her head darted from person to person to person, trying to keep up with the conversation and trying to see what they were laughing about. But it was moving too fast for her,” Kile said. “I watched from a distance as her little head bowed and she just looked at the ground. She started to cry.”
Kile knew it was time for a change. She enrolled her daughter in Notre Dame School when Grace was 13 years old.
“Notre Dame gave Grace a community. It gave her lifelong friends. It gave her a real social life. It gave her a boyfriend. It gave her dances. It gave her opportunities,” said Kile. “Instead of her trying to keep up and fit into everybody else’s world, Grace has a world that she fits in.”
The School Sisters
What began as a two-classroom school with 19 pioneering students has developed into a 21-room school with about 173 students a year; but, thanks to the influence of the School Sisters, the school’s mission has remained the same.
“The mission of the sisters is to ‘make one,’ to form community wherever we’re sent, and to really work for the oneness for which Jesus Christ was sent,” said Sister Gloria Cain, SSND. “We’ve done that through our ministry in education.”
The sisters remain a powerful presence in the school, volunteering at Notre Dame, donating funds, and praying for students.
“The fact that the School Sisters pray for our school and our staff—that is huge to me,” said Kile.
Fernandez, whose aunt is a School Sister of Notre Dame in El Paso, emphasized the importance of the sisters to the school.
“It’s very important as a ministry of the School Sisters of Notre Dame that we carry their charism and mission as lay people,” Fernandez said.
Celebrating 60 Years
To celebrate 60 years of mission-driven service, Notre Dame School organized a day of service last spring. More than 100 students went off campus to engage in volunteer work for the community. The school also hosted a 60th birthday party Sep. 23, attended by 400 to 500 people, and celebrated an anniversary Mass Oct. 7 with Bishop Edward J. Burns.
The school will honor its community partners and the School Sisters on Nov. 4 with its 40th Annual An Affair of the Heart Gala; Bishop Burns will serve as an honorary chairperson for the event.
“I don’t know what I would do without the school,” O’Brien reflected. “I’m very grateful for them, and I am grateful for the staff and for the teachers. And I am so pleased to be part of it.”