Hand-in-Hand Options board looking to future growth

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Pope John Paul II High School was the first school in the Diocese of Nashville to offer the Hand-in-Hand Options program to serve students with intellectual and developmental delays. There are now three schools offering the program. Hannah Dodd, who was a student in the Hand-in-Hand Options program at St. Ann School before coming to JPII for high school, works on an assignment during class. Photo by Andy Telli

The board of directors of the Diocese of Nashville’s Hand-in-Hand Options program is looking to the future of how Catholic schools will serve students of all ability levels.

“The board is working diligently to provide the programs the teachers need and our families need to make sure all of our students reach their fullest potential,” said Kathy Boles, director of exceptional learners for the diocese’s Catholic Schools Office.

“Like all schools, we have students who need support services, and we want to offer evidenced-based interventions to meet the needs of our students,” Boles said.


“As our schools continue to grow, so does the number of students needing support,” she added.

The board, which was organized in May 2020, is conducting a strategic planning process, with the help of consultant Cissy Mynatt, to identify goals and objectives to implement in the next three to five years that will help the program grow, Boles said.

“The plan will look across the diocese at what we need,” she said. The board hopes to finish the process by the late spring.

The Hand-in-Hand Options program was first established at Pope John Paul II High School in 2004 to serve students with intellectual disabilities. “The board is looking at how do we provide support for a broader range of students,” said Elise McMillan, the president of the Hand-in-Hand Options board, including those with autism, ADHD, learning disabilities and other disabilities.


“We’ve got to figure out how to do it strategically and do it in a good way that benefits everybody,” McMillan said.

That includes continuing to offer professional development opportunities for the learning support specialists as well as all the professional educators in diocesan schools, so they can help students with a broad range of needs and abilities, Boles said.

“We’re working to make sure schools have the staff with the training needed to meet the students’ needs, using best practices and evidence-based interventions,” Boles added.

“We want to really build that capacity within the diocese,” McMillan said.

The strategic planning process has helped the board set its priorities moving forward, McMillan said.

Currently, the Hand-in-Hand Options program is serving 19 students with intellectual and developmental disabilities in three schools: JPII, St. Ann School and St. Matthew School. Schools across the diocese are also serving the needs of more than 200 students with diagnoses such as dyslexia, ADHD, language delays and others.

As the program is growing, the diocese wants to “strengthen what’s happening in the schools al-ready,” Boles said.

“Administrators, educators and support professionals at all the schools have done an amazing job throughout the years and are excited to further develop their skills for the good of all our students,” Boles said.

The board will be important in that effort, she added.

In assembling the board, the diocese tapped individuals with a broad range of experiences and expertise, including those in the medical, legal, and financial fields. It also included people with knowledge of the Middle Tennessee area and local Catholic community, and experience with students who have learning differences. The board includes parents of current and former students in the Hand-in-Hand Options program. “We wanted a broad lens,” Boles said.

The board was established with nine members. “We intentionally started with a smaller board,” but it will grow in the future as the board determines what other areas of experience would be helpful, Boles said.

“In addition to the board members, we have committee members from the community who have even more expertise,” Boles said. The committees will work on the specific areas of budget and finance, advancement and program oversight.

McMillan brings both personal and professional experience to the board. Her son, Will, was in the first class of students in the Hand-in-Hand Options program when it was established at JPII.

“We saw what a difference it made for Will and the difference it’s made for other families,” McMillan said. “From the first day that he was on the Pope John Paul II campus there was respect, there were the same high expectations the school had for all students, there was a wonderful sense of community.”

McMillan is the co-director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, which is one of the nation’s top research, training and service centers.

The board has been working hard in its first year, Boles said. “The amount of work that’s been done has been amazing,” Boles said.

That work, as well as the Hand-in-Hands Options program, has the support of Bishop J. Mark Spalding and diocesan Superintendent of Schools Rebecca Hammel, Boles said. “Bishop Spalding, as well as Rebecca, is committed to serving all of the diocese’s students.”

To donate to the Hand-in-Hand Options program, visit www.dioceseofnashville.com/hand-in-hand-options-program/.

Pope John Paul II High School was the first school in the Diocese of Nashville to offer the Hand-in-Hand Options program to serve students with intellectual and developmental delays. There are now three schools offering the program. Hannah Dodd, who was a student in the Hand-in-Hand Options program at St. Ann School before coming to JPII for high school, works on an assignment during class. Photo by Andy Telli

Hand-in-Hand Options board offers variety of experience

The Hand-in-Hand Options board of directors have been working since May 2020 to improve the program. The members offer the board a variety of experience and expertise.

The members include:

• Elise McMillan, president. McMillan is the co-director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, a research, training and services center that is part of Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Vanderbilt University.

She and her husband Tom are the parents of three young adults including their son Will, who has Down syndrome and was in the inaugural Hand-in-Hand class at Pope John Paul II High School.

• Joe Sullivan, vice president. Sullivan was born and raised in Nashville, and is a graduate of Holy Rosary Academy, Father Ryan High School and Tennessee Tech University. He is a 30-year banker. He and his wife Linda are moving back to the Nashville area so their youngest son, Ryan, who has Down syndrome, will be able to attend the Hand-in-Hand Options program when he is eligible.

• Ed Warner, secretary. Warner is a native Nashvillian and graduate of St. Edward School, Father Ryan High School and the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. He currently is a General Partner of Warner Partners, LP, a Franklin-based real estate investment firm. Warner and his family are parishioners at St. Edward. He has a friend whose daughter has Down syndrome and is in the Hand-in-Hand Options program at St. Matthew School. Warner said he has seen how the Hand-in-Hand Options program has helped her.

• Chad Handshy, treasurer. Handshy is the Assistant Head of School for Finance and Advancement at Currey Ingram Academy where he has been for the last 14 years. Prior to that, he held administrative roles at Vanderbilt University, Webster University in St. Louis, and Washington University in St. Louis. He and his wife Jennifer reside in Franklin where they raised their four children. They are parishioners at Holy Family Church in Brentwood.

• Carolyn Baker. Baker is a career educator. She has a doctorate from Vanderbilt in education. She taught at Overbrook School for 14 years; was an adjunct at Aquinas College, University of St. Thomas and Springfield College (satellite campus) in Houston. Baker founded the Nashville Catholic Middle School Forensic League. She was involved with starting the Hand-in-Hand program at Pope John Paul II High School and St. Ann Catholic School.

• Kay Sappenfield Dodd. Dodd is a lifelong Catholic from Nashville who is a Senior Vice President with Pinnacle Bank. She is one of six children and an alum of Father Ryan. She and her husband of 33 years, John Dodd, have four children. She was on the original formation team of the Hand-in-Hand Program, and her daughter is a sophomore in the Hand-in-Hand Options program at JPII. She is a parishioner of St. Henry Church in Nashville.

• Helen Duhon. Duhon is a charter member of Holy Family Church in Brentwood, and she  served as the parish’s first Youth Leader. Duhon worked as the lead speech pathologist in Metro Schools for several years before opening her private practice. She served on many professional boards, with the most recent being the board of directors at Currey Ingram Academy. She recently sold her company and is retired.

• Dr. Paul Heil. Heil practices general pediatrics at Old Harding Pediatric Associates where he has a number of patients with special needs. Heil and his wife, Joyce, have been married for 33 years. They have three children between 20 and 30 years of age. Their daughter Jillian had Rett Syndrome and died at the age of 11. His entire family was profoundly affected by her life and gained perspec-tive about individuals with physical challenges and developmental differences.

• Father John Sims Baker. Father Baker is the pastor of St. Rose of Lima Church in Murfreesboro. He is originally from Ashland City and is an alumnus of St. Pius X School in Bordeaux.

Committee members include:

• Finance and Budget: Chad Handshy, chair, Father John Sims Baker, Bill Gavigan, diocesan Director of Exceptional Learners Kathy Boles, and diocesan School Superintendent Rebecca Hammel.

• Advancement: Kay Dodd, chair, Joe Sullivan, Chad Handshy, Kathy Schwartz, Lorie Lytle, Ed Warner, Carolyn Baker, Bill Gavigan, Jenni Moscardelli, Boles and Hammel.

• Program Oversight: Helen Duhon, chair, Jena Galster, Emily Lanchak, Dr. Paul Heil, JPII Head of School Mike Deely, St. Matthew Principal Tim Forbes, St. Ann Principal Anna Rumfola, Boles and Hammel.

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