Jasmin receives the gift of a brown scapular and miraculous medal from Bishop Thomas on the first day of school at St. Katherine Day School.

The sun was shining brightly in the Philadelphia area on Sept. 4 and nowhere more brightly than at a little school tucked away at 930 Bowman Avenue in Wynnewood.

That would be St. Katherine Day School, where some very special children with learning and in some cases physical disabilities were starting their very first day of the school year, and there was not an unhappy face among them.

There to inaugurate the new school year with them were Bishop Daniel E. Thomas, Secretary for Catholic Education Chris Mominey and Superintendent for Elementary Education Jacqueline Coccia.

(See our photo gallery by staff photographer Sarah Webb with 17 images from the visit, and watch a video below.)

Bishop Thomas, who blessed a group of the little ones and their classroom, told them, “Our hope and prayer today is that as you begin your new school year you will know the love and joy of Jesus, and that what you learn here at St. Katherine Day School might help give that love and joy of Jesus to your family, your friends and everyone you meet.”

Also among the gathering was Cheryl Kehoe Rodgers, a member of St. Francis of Assisi Parish Norristown, whose son Matthew is a St. Katherine student.

Matthew, who has Down syndrome, has been a student at St. Katherine since he was 6 and is now turning 12.

“I love this school, there is nothing better,” his mother said. “It’s a fabulous school, a family. Matthew loves it here; this is his family, his home. They teach him everything he needs to know and more in a Catholic environment.”

Mominey has just started as secretary for Catholic education, coming from the Diocese of Syracuse, where he was superintendent of schools. This was his first official visit to a school in session.

“It’s good to be here where our mission is so visible and valuable for our special education students,” he said. “These kids are very special in God’s eyes and we are happy to be here to bless them today.”

As for himself, coming to Philadelphia from Syracuse, “I’m so excited, it’s been a great transition and we are off to a great start,” Mominey said. “It has been a wonderful time for myself and my family.”

Special education doesn’t come cheap. At St. Katherine Day School, which only accepts students who are cognitively and developmentally challenged, it costs an estimated $16,000 to $17,000 annually to educate a child or young adult, estimates Peg Devaney, who has been principal for the past 11 years.

That’s the cost. What Catholic families actually pay is $3,300 per child, a figure fairly typical for a parish or regional Catholic elementary school. Non-Catholic families pay $6,100, fairly close to a typical diocesan high school. In either case parents are getting quite a bang for the buck, all things considered.

This is possible thanks to assistance from the Catholic Charities Appeal, BLOCS (Business Leadership Organized for Catholic Schools), the Children’s Scholarship Fund and other sources.

Split between two campuses, one on Bowman Avenue and the other at Archbishop Carroll High School in Radnor, St. Katherine’s opens this year with 96 students.

There are 11 classroom teachers, 11 teacher’s aides and two part-time therapists. This works out to one staff member for each three students.

“We are faith-oriented, based in Jesus and Christian living,” Devaney said.

The school traces back to 1954 when it was founded in St. Barbara Parish, Philadelphia, as St. Barbara’s School for the Mentally Retarded. In 1963, when it was moved to the grounds of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, it was renamed St. Katherine’s Day School. It is still at that location although the school grounds are now separated from the seminary, following the sale of 63 acres from the seminary property in 1984.

St. Katherine’s accepts children with an I.Q. of 70 or under as young as 4 ½. For the most part students are taught at the Wynnewood campus up to age 15, when they move on to the Radnor campus where they may stay up until age 21. An exception is children with very profound mental and physical disabilities who remain in Wynnewood for their entire education.

Wherever they attend, the emphasis is on the individual student, with each getting the education level at which he or she can progress.

The St. Katherine students in Radnor are not mainstreamed in classes with the Carroll students. “It’s more for socialization,” Devaney explained. The St. Katherine students gain life skills by interacting with the Carroll students, and Carroll has a “Best Buddies Program” that fosters this.

The emphasis at both is on life skills and in most cases preparing students for independent living and such work as their abilities permit.

Social life is not ignored. For example St. Katharine’s has monthly dances for students 14 and older, and each year there is a full-fledged prom for those who are 16 and older.

“Graduates can attend and we have grads in their 40s who come back for the prom,” Devaney said.

On average, students might stay at St. Katherine’s for about 10 years, Devaney estimates, and that tells something about the level of satisfaction on the part of the parents.

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Lou Baldwin is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.