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Catholic Special Needs School Slated for Pensacola

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A new Catholic school for students with disabilities in Pensacola is scheduled to begin operation during the 2020-2021 school year.

Morning Star High School begins instruction in August on the campus of Pensacola Catholic High School on West Scott Street — and will be an independent institution.

“The meaning of ‘morning star’ in Scripture is referring specifically to Jesus Christ; who is the light before the dawn — that star that guides us toward wisdom,” said Dave Kimbell, a vice principal at Sacred Heart Cathedral School. “It often symbolizes hope.”

Currently, there are two Morning Star programs in elementary and middle schools: Sacred Heart at the elementary level, and St. John the Evangelist in Warrington for middle schoolers. 

“And those schools do a great job of serving students with special needs in grades K-8, Kimbell said. “The question has been for the last few years, what do these students do when they graduate from our parochial elementary schools?”

Some parents of special needs children approached Bishop Bill Wack a couple of years ago, asking whether a Morning Star high school could be established for those promoted from Sacred Heart and St. John.

“In Matthew Chapter 25 Jesus says that we are to serve the least of these brothers and sisters; to welcome all children,’” said Kimbell. “And whenever we serve anyone who might be struggling or who is in some ways downtrodden in the world, we are serving Him.”

Catholic schools are not legally required to accept students with disabilities, but doing so is consistent with Church teaching, according to a report from Catholic University in Washington, D.C., Kimbell says along those lines, many of the Catholic schools in Florida are accepting such kids.

“Really because it’s a benefit for everyone; not only for the students that have those special needs, but also for our high-achieving students in helping them to become more patient and empathetic and compassionate, ” Kimbell said. “And also ensure that their priorities are aligned with where their priorities should be.”

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Dave Kimbell, Vice Principal at Sacred Heart Cathedral School.

There are numerous differences between a Catholic curriculum and that for a secular school. In the case of Catholic special education – at least for Morning Start – one of those differences is the size of the program. The plan calls for 15-20 students for the first few years.

“That gives the students the opportunity to work independently; one-on-one, and in small groups with teachers and instructors,” Kimbell said. “And the other thing is that students will be able to learn and grow in the context of their faith.”

As preparations continue for the August opening, Kimbell says the most immediate goal is the hiring of a program director – after that, the hiring of the rest of the faculty and staff.

“We have posted the position and received a few great applicants already; we are hopefully going to be able to make that hire within the next few weeks,” said Kimbell. “The site preparation is already underway; curriculum decisions are already being made, and we already have 15 students who have preregistered for the program.”

The committee which explored the concept of the school — chaired by Dave Kimbell — also got input on how some of the students can continue their education beyond Morning Star.

“We actually had a representative from George Stone Technical College on our committee,” said Kimbell. “And we’re hoping that as the years progress and our students grow, toward the later years of the program they may actually be able to enroll in some vocational training programs through George Stone.”

Per Florida High School Athletic Association rules, students at Morning Star are ineligible to participate as players on Catholic High sports teams. But Kimbell says the doors are open for inclusion elsewhere.

“Catholic High School has said that they are welcome to participate in any of the other extracurriculars [and] any of the other social events,” Kimbell said. “And they also serve as something like a team manager for the Division-I athletic programs.”

More information can be found at www.ptdiocese.org/morningstarhs.