The staff and administration at St. John XXIII Parish School in Port Washington have made Gianna Nevsimal (right) feel comfortable since she began attending the school in September 2019. (Submitted photo)

When the whole student body and staff of St. John XXIII Parish School in Port Washington donned the colors blue and yellow to celebrate Down Syndrome Awareness Month on Oct. 30, it was more than just a show of support and appreciation for the uniqueness and value of all human life.

It was a deeply personal gesture to one student in particular: 12-year-old Gianna Nevsimal, who came to the school last year looking for a place to thrive — and found it.

In the spring of 2019, Gianna’s mom, Deb, was on the hunt for a new educational environment for her daughter. Full of energy, vibrance, silliness and love, the pre-teen “definitely has the light of Christ inside her,” said Deb Nevsimal, a parishioner at St. Frances Cabrini Parish in West Bend. “She knows how to do just the right thing for everyone in her life to make them smile. She loves to know the saint of the day and can tell you who’s birthday is coming up every week.”

The Nevsimals were looking for a new learning environment for Gianna, who was born with Down Syndrome. It was the perfect time for the family to find a parochial school that would be able to accommodate her, as she was graduating from her current elementary school. “We toured the public intermediate school she would be entering and felt in our hearts it wasn’t what we wanted for her,” said Nevsimal. “I didn’t want her to be told she couldn’t pray before lunch or she couldn’t draw a heart with a cross inside of it.”

When she heard about the Special Needs Scholarship Program, which allows qualifying students with disabilities to receive a state-funded scholarship to a participating private school, Nevsimal immediately looked into which participating schools were within driving distance of the family’s home and sent out inquiries to all the principals.

Unfortunately, most responded that their small private schools did not have the type of funding that would allow Gianna to thrive.

But one principal, Kristine Klein of St. John XXIII Parish School in Port Washington, was determined to figure out if her school could be the right home for Gianna and the Nevsimals.

“Part of our mission here is to serve, learn, love and lead as disciples of Christ,” explained Klein. “When we talk about that, we talk about serving every child — and every child is an individual and has needs that should be met in different ways.”

Though the school does not have a designated special education teacher, several teachers at St. John XXIII have experience working with students who have special education needs, and there are already students in the school community who require varying levels of intervention and support in the classroom. Klein began dialoguing with her staff to appraise the school’s readiness for a student with Gianna’s needs.

“With special needs, we need to look a little deeper — do we have the people, the resources and if not, is there a way we can get them? How can we do this so everyone has a positive experience?” said Klein. “The entire time we’re thinking: this is our mission, how are we going to live it out?”

After a tour of the school, the Nevsimals were even more convinced that St. John XXIII was the place Gianna needed to be. “Kristine came back with so much love and hope,” said Deb Nevsimal. “It was such a blessing to hear how excited they were about the opportunity.”

Klein and her team worked over the summer of 2019 to assess what Gianna would need, shadowing her current teachers and learning everything they could about what had worked for her and what had not. Together, they made the decision that it would be possible to accommodate Gianna’s needs at St. John XXIII.

“Gianna had her fair share of behavior support plans and interventions on her IEP, that honestly, I was concerned and worried it would not work out, as we were having a hard time finding a paraprofessional who would work with her,” said Deb Nevsimal. “But Kristine and the school made it happen. It was like we both just believed this was God’s plan for both of us and the school.”

“I’m a very firm believer in inclusion,” said Klein. “What that means is having kids in the classroom, yes, but also having them experience the same things as every other child in that classroom.”

Gianna began fifth grade at St. John XXIII in September 2019, and the experience brought with it new challenges. But Gianna “has come so far,” said Klein. “I sit in the classroom and I hear her interacting very much like a typical sixth grader would to certain things. We have really seen her grow into her own person. She gets to talk about Jesus and God and pray, and all those things that are special to her, and you can tell that’s one of the ways she feels comfortable here.”

Even with the upheaval of COVID-19, Gianna has continued to succeed and even received one of the school’s “Living Out Our Mission” awards. Klein’s teaching staff suggested that the school do something to recognize Down Syndrome Awareness Month in Gianna’s honor, so Klein organized a virtual school-wide celebration, complete with a movie party for Gianna’s homeroom class, who got to watch her favorite film, “Frozen 2,” while wearing their pajamas. Gianna, with the help of one of her friends, was also able to read a book to the class about a girl who has Down Syndrome.

“God has carefully placed Gianna right where she was meant to be, in a school full of love and support who sees and accepts Gianna for who she is as a person, not what she is defined as having,” said Nevsimal.