Students at an archdiocesan school of special education recently showed off their skills – and their dance moves – for an esteemed guest.

On Tuesday, May 11 Archbishop Nelson Pérez visited St. Katherine Day School in Wynnewood, touring classrooms and greeting teachers, students and staff, who presented him with a handmade card and school spirit items.

(View a photo gallery of Archbishop Nelson Pérez’s visit to St. Katherine Day School.)

The archbishop was joined by Dr. Danielle Heeney, the newly appointed director of special education for the Philadelphia Archdiocese, who in addition to St. Katherine oversees Our Lady of Confidence School, St. Lucy School for Children with Visual Impairments and special education services in archdiocesan high schools throughout the five-county region.

Founded by the Sisters of Mercy in 1952 at St. Barbara Parish in Philadelphia, St. Katherine was the nation’s first day program for students with special needs. The archdiocese opened the school’s Wynnewood campus in 1963, with Archbishop John Carroll High School in Radnor housing St. Katherine’s high school program. Tuition costs at both locations are offset through generous funding from the annual Catholic Charities Appeal.

Some 70 students ranging in age from 4.5 to 21 years old attend St. Katherine, which offers programs for those with multiple impairments, as well as life skills instruction, functional academics and vocational training. Speech, occupational and physical therapy rounds out the curriculum, since many of the students (whose IQs are 70 or below) have “other conditions such as autism, Down syndrome or communications disorders,” said principal Lauren Bell.

“We welcome children with multiple disabilities, and we want them to be as independent as possible,” said Bell. “We want them to be able to join the workforce like everybody else, and to be able to live on their own one day. That really is a goal for us.”

Prior to COVID, students participated in off-site “community-based instruction,” which consists of “doing normal, everyday things independently,” such as “going to the food store or the post office,” she said.
In addition, the high school program features a job coach who connects students with area employment opportunities. St. Katherine students have worked on the campus of Villanova University, as well as at stores and gymns, tackling “practice-type jobs” at which they excel, noted Bell.

Bell and her team “did everything possible to reopen” as COVID protocols were eased – and parents themselves “begged” the school to return to in-person learning, she said.

“Our kids cannot and will not learn virtually,” said Bell. “They are not going to make any progress sitting in front of a screen all day. They have to be hands-on, and they have to be in front of that teacher.”

The one-on-one interaction “helps them process” instruction more efficiently and at the pace best suited to each student, she said.

Teachers at archdiocesan schools of special education “have worked really hard throughout the pandemic,” especially during the periods of virtual learning, to remain connected with their students, said Dr. Heeney.

As COVID restrictions are being phased out, students are seeing “that light at the end of the tunnel,” she said – although they have generally fared well throughout the pandemic, since “they are more flexible than we adults are,” she added.

Seventh-grader Gary was all smiles as he led Archbishop Pérez’s tour, admitting only afterward that he had been “a little nervous” about his assignment.

At one point in his walk-through, the archbishop chatted with a class learning to use a calendar.

“You should see my calendar,” he quipped, and when one student said she wished it were Friday, he added, “I like that idea.”

Grade 10 students treated Archbishop Pérez to an impromptu “alleluia” dance as a recording of the hymn “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” played.

“I am the man,” said one youth, and the archbishop quickly agreed.

The school’s welcoming, upbeat atmosphere is due in large part to the students themselves, said Bell.

“God comes into our world here on a daily basis,” she said. “Our chapel is such a beautiful reminder that God is with us. And the children teach us how to love, and how to be gracious to one another. They are the joys of our lives.”