PVI Options

Options History

The Founding of the PVI Options Program
Options began, like many other educational innovations, with parents who wanted something better for their children. The Harringtons and the Alonsos wanted their children to have a Catholic education by attending PVI as their older siblings had. The Lees and the Armitages wanted their daughters to have an inclusive high school experience with strong academics. Only one such high school existed, and it was on the other side of the country. Could something be done, here and now, to give these students a better high school experience? From these early conversations in 1997 came the hard work which resulted in the PVI Options Program.

The time was right for this effort at modified inclusion – the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1978 issued a pastoral statement calling for fuller integration of the developmentally disabled into the life of the Christian community. PVI’s principal Fr. John Lyle was sympathetic to the cause, and diocesan Superintendent of Schools Dr. Timothy McNiff was interested and supportive. Anne Marie Chester, director of development for PVI, was willing to serve as liaison between parents and school. It remained for the parents to build the case.

Over the next year, that’s what they did. Parents raised the funds to fly Stephanie Lee, Fr. Lyle, and other PVI officials to Bellevue, Washington, to visit Eastside Catholic High School (ECHS) and learn more about their Options program. ECHS arranged an intensive series of presentations based on their 22 years’ experience, showing how Options could be implemented at PVI. On the recommendation of Dr. McNiff, an advisory board was formed, utilizing the expertise of special educators to help develop curricula, policy and logistics. Lee chaired and raised funds for this committee which met weekly, along with a parent advisory committee. More fundraising, and the parents were able to bring representatives from Eastside to PVI for the purpose of planning the introduction and integration of Options. Programs were developed and implemented to help faculty, staff and students understand this new program and how it could fit in at PVI, and a formal Programs and Policy Manual for Options was written. The wheels were in motion.

Leo Alonso scouted the building for room to house Options, and worked with the architect to redesign the space (a former janitor’s closet and stage lighting storage) on the second floor. A grant from the Knights of Columbus helped pay for the renovations, which were implemented by the volunteer labor of Options parents, teachers and the larger PVI community. Parents had raised over $200,000 just to fund start-up costs for Options, and would raise almost a half million more in the next few years.

Compared to the cost of educating students in the general education population, the cost of educating students in the Options program is significantly higher. Options was set up with the mandate that its parents would cover the gap between what tuition brought in, and the actual cost of running the program. This meant that Options parents, who already paid a higher tuition than the average PVI parent, were pledged to cover a deficit which some years exceeded $80,000. Fundraising took many forms, but always included two stints a month per family at the recycling center for Fairfax County, where parents and students would stack papers in the recycling bin maintained by the Catholic men’s group Alhambra, who gave generously to Options each year. This activity was affectionately known as “working the dump.” Numerous other fundraisers raised small amounts throughout the year, until 2005 when a major fundraiser chaired by Mary Donovan and Jo Rinkerman netted over $40,000, and became the model for the annual PVI Gala. Worries about money would always be a prime concern.

However, it was a small price to pay for participation in Options, a fact which was recognized by the founding families when they agreed to this financial arrangement. With the financial stability of Options reasonably well assured, the final plans fell into place.

On July 7, 1998, the Board of Governors ratified the Options Program, and in September, six students entered the first Options class. There was one teacher, a part-time aide and a part-time director of the program. Today – 25 years later – Options has 16 students, eight full time teachers and a Dean of Exceptional Learning as part of school administration. The course offerings have expanded beyond the basic core academics to include post-grad skills, transition to high school, and psychology. Students are take many other electives in the general education setting such as music, art, band, cybersecurity, math, internet programming, world languages, theology, engineering and many more. Students in Options participate in many extracurricular activities and enjoy the same spring events, dances, and service activities as their peers. An outstanding Special Olympics program fields teams in all major seasonal sports, and hosts several regional Special Olympics events throughout the year.

As in the beginning, the hallmark of the Options program is the social relationships which develop between students in the Options program and their peer mentors – students who give up a study hall several times a week in order to help a student in Options with a class. Peer mentors sit next to the student, helping him or her stay focused and on task, modeling appropriate behavior, and being a friend.

While it is obvious what a valuable service the peer mentors provide to the Options students, what isn’t always apparent is the impact their service has on the peer mentors themselves. Again and again, peer mentors cite their experience in Options as a formative one in their high school careers, and one which has given them a great deal of satisfaction. Some have chosen to go into special education as a career because of their work with students in Options.

In 2007, the Board of Governors decided to bring Options into the budget as a regular academic department. Options entered a new phase as a full partner in the life of PVI. The Options Parent Group continues to meet to plan extracurricular activities, spread the word to the larger community, for example through year-round participation in Special Olympics, and increasing involvement by students in Options and their parents in the life of PVI. In 2007, PVI also won an award from Today’s Catholic Teacher magazine and was honored at the NCEA Conference for its successful integration of students with disabilities through the Options program.

The current Options programs have eclipsed even the most optimistic visions of the founders. Once only the second program of its kind in the nation, PVI Options has gained attention and its impact is spreading far beyond its own doors. Educators from all over the country have contacted PVI seeking information about starting their own program for students with intellectual disabilities. In the Diocese of Arlington, all four high schools now offer similar programs and services for students with intellectual disabilities and the number of programs at the Diocesan elementary schools continue to grow.

It’s been successful everywhere it’s been tried, due to careful planning and support, and students with special needs now benefit from an inclusive faith-based education in a variety of schools in the Diocese. As was true of the original Options, the schools with Options programs have seen widespread benefits to their typical students as well, who have grown in grace and wisdom because of the inclusion of special needs students in their classes and schools. The “unique gifts” of these students -- cited by the bishops in their 1978 pastoral statement – continue to bear fruit, thanks to the Paul VI community.

Many thanks to Karen Hoppe P ’09 for contributing this article.

Updates to the Options Program

  • Grown to support 17 students
  • Physical space has expanded to include four dedicated classrooms and two offices
  • Expanded curriculum offered to students in Options, including STEM, robotics, and Post Grad Skills courses where students work on and off-site, gaining much-needed life skills or preparation for what's next 
  • Created two classes for Peer Mentors — Introduction to Peer Mentoring and Peer Mentoring: Beyond the Basics
  • Panther Perks: a coffee cart program run by students in Options for faculty and staff
  • Grew work opportunities on campus to include working for admissions, clerical work, and volunteer work
  • Paul VI has hired two alumni to work in Advancement and in the Options Program, as well as a staff person with special needs in the Cafeteria 
  • Options staff has grown to include assistants
  • Conducted an annual Special Olympics basketball clinic with the assistance of the basketball program 
  • Options Basketball team plays in a George Mason University Basketball halftime game
  • Completes a yearly service project for the Bishop by packaging gifts for all seniors graduating in the diocese
  • Supported numerous programs such as CCD and schools worldwide, including public schools, as they expanded or added inclusive programs
  • Started a service project with the students from Options collecting items for the SERVE shelter in Manassas

Awards and Distinctions

  • April 1999 - Paul VI Options team Wins Northern Virginia Region Special Olympics Hoops Tournament
  • April 1999 - Paul VI was named by the Commonwealth Virginia’s Department of Education as one of its three national Learning Leader Schools. 
  • March 2002 - Paul VI wins Northern Region Special Olympics Basketball Tournament
  • December 2002 - Paul VI wins 2002 Outstanding School Award from Special Olympics Virginia
  • June 24, 2023 - Paul VI received the Inclusion Catalyst Award from Porto Charities
St. Paul VI Catholic High School is a private Diocesan Catholic preparatory school for girls and boys in grades 9-12 in Chantilly, Virginia, seeking to help our students Grow in Grace and Wisdom. Our school is part of the Diocese of Arlington and offers rigorous academics, an inclusive community focused on spiritual and leadership formation, and a proud athletic tradition featuring nationally renowned programs competing in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference and the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association.

St. Paul VI Catholic High School is an accredited member of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools.