Sister Georgine School for those with special needs closes after 44 years
By Lois Rogers |Features Editor
For 44 years, the Sister Georgine School has been on pilgrimage throughout the Greater Trenton area and beyond, bringing enlightenment, life skills and a sense of loving community to scores of young people with educational disabilities.
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The 200 or so students fortunate enough to have embarked on their educational journeys in the warm embrace of the school since its founding by the late Franciscan Sister Georgine Wohnhaas have been consistently encouraged to discover and make the most of their capabilities at various levels.
Perhaps most importantly, they’ve learned a lot about self-determination, about who they are, who they can talk to about their problems and how high they can reach, said their principal, Franciscan Sister Barbara Furst. They have learned “how to stay on their feet,” she noted June 14, exactly seven days before the school was slated to close as a result of declining enrollment.
They have had the chance to make the most of their lives, going on to work in area supermarkets, garden centers, food services and with ARC or in occupational training.
And if sharing the day with the last group of nine students – including five graduates – in the bright, cheerful school located in a wing of the Arc of Mercer, Ewing, for the past five years, proved anything, it proved that Sister Georgine and her heirs are leaving a rich and worthy legacy.
For, in talking to the young people, they made it perfectly clear they had learned the biggest lesson: that they could, to quote them as they paraphrased Dr. Seuss, go over any mountain and come successfully down.
And they had learned some of the most amazing things under the care of the sisters and the staff who had nurtured them over the years, changing goals and objectives for the students, Sister Barbara said, to coincide with their needs.
They had learned, as one of this year’s five graduates, Bernadette Moran, triumphantly announced, about DNA and the roles genes play in the creation of families.
They had learned, as another graduate, Kenny Wade, shared, how to make movies on the computer – including his own show, entitled “Cooking with Kenny” where he featured his recipes for Rice Krispy Treats.
The graduates and the four students, who will be moving on to the Mercer Special Services School District, said they were excited about what they’d learned, academically, socially, athletically and relationally at the state-approved private school.
In the classroom of Julie Lowe, a teacher at the school for 25 years, the young people talked about learning everything from times tables to social studies to world languages. They said they enjoyed making friends, going on school trips and building relationships with students from Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville, who, among other activities, hosted a prom for them.
They loved competing in the Special Olympics and being a part of making the slideshows and videos that displayed their athletic abilities. They loved honing the job skills they were learning from RoseAnne O’Connor, their job coach every Tuesday in the Diocesan Chancery – one of the number of workplaces in which they volunteered – where the young people enjoyed socializing with the staff as they helped out on office chores and projects.
Their years at the school, said a student named Christopher, were good. The teachers were nice. “It was good to come here every day” said Christopher, one of the four who will be attending classes in Mercer Special Services programs this fall. [[In-content Ad]]
Pioneers in the Field
“This was a blessed venture,” said Sister Barbara as she spoke of the history of the school and the affect it had on generations of young people. “We’ve done a whole lot. It was exciting for us because our goal was to educate children.” With a smile, she added: “We did our job and we are happy with what we did.”
The Sister Georgine School, she said, was originally established by Bishop George W. Ahr under the auspices of the diocesan Department of Catholic Schools.
Eager to find a way to meet the religious needs of children with disabilities, in 1965, the bishop had dispatched Sister Georgine to Saint Coletta Day School in Milwaukee known for its religious education programs for pupils with educational disabilities.
She returned with skills in a field that was just beginning and started the first religious education class in the diocese for special needs children in 1966 in Immaculate Conception Parish, Trenton. By her side was Sister Barbara.
“The parents appreciated the class so much, they asked sister if she could start a day school to teach their children,” Sister Barbara said. “She thought about it, she prayed about it and we did it!
“She had a vision that determined it would happen,” Sister Barbara said. “She believed special needs students needed to be educated and helped. She was a very strong person, very motivated – a firm person but a very sincere and gentle lady.”
The school which would bear her name opened in 1969 with a mission to offer opportunities to children and young adults to become independent, self-sufficient, productive members of society according to their abilities.
There was a focus on affirmation, encouragement and positive environment that spanned the entire history of the school, said Sister Barbara, who pledged to carry on in Sister Georgine’s stead when she contracted the leukemia that would claim her life.
Hoping for a Miracle
The shift from being a Catholic learning center to a private school occurred in 1985 after it had become clear that in order to keep up with the growing field of special education, more support staff and faculty would be needed.
“The students who were coming would not have been able to afford the tuition we would have had to charge them,” said Sister Barbara. And so, the board of directors decided to seek state certification that would enable them to bring in tuition students from public school districts. Beginning in 1985, Sister Georgine School began accepting the students – mostly from Trenton, but also from Hamilton, Ewing, East and West Windsor and Florence.
Over the years, the staff worked to create a very productive program, Sister Barbara said. “We zeroed in on the abilities of the students and all of our students made progress. Since our beginning, our mission and vision for the school and the students didn’t change.”
But the goals and objectives were often adapted to coincide with the needs of the students, she said. “That’s how we introduced all the programs in our daily living, life skills and pre-vocational programs,” she said.
“The staff focus was always on preparing the students for life after school. Over time, they changed the way instruction was presented, tried many innovative programs and procedures, worked carefully and slowly so the students could see their own success.”
Sister Barbara noted the efforts to keep not only the students up-to-date with the most current digital technology, but their parents and the community at large as well with sending monthly newsletters over via the Internet.
The arrangement lasted, to everyone’s satisfaction, until enrollment started slipping below the state mandated number of 16 students. In 2010, the Trenton school district advised Sister Georgine School that it would have to keep an average of 16 students over a three-year period in order to continue to receive the district’s students and funding.
“We weren’t able to do that,” Sister Barbara said.
In 2010, the school had 15 students, just one shy of the number needed to stay open but, try as they might, they never achieved the miracle they were praying for.
“We’ve had so many miracles over the years, we were hoping,” she said. But students graduated and their vacancies were not filled. “It was nobody’s problem in the end,” she said. “It was something that just happened.”
As the school prepared to close, Sister Barbara said she was happy with the choice she had made all those years ago to work with the children and young people of St. Georgine School. “I believe that my mission is to extend my hand to these children. I believe in them and I love them.
“I believed that they needed a chance in life and an opportunity and that I could help give it to them … I knew I could help change their lives … This has been a marvelous journey and I admire what they have done.”