Catholic schools have historically been at the forefront of quality education, not only in terms of rigorous academics, but also in terms of serving marginalized populations. Catholic schools were the first to educate African American students in the colonies, the first to integrate schools in Florida, and some of the first to address the needs of the cognitive and intellectually disabled.
The first school in Central Florida to serve cognitive and intellectually disabled students was Morning Star Catholic School in Orlando. The school was opened in 1960 by the Sisters of St. Joseph, a religious order from St. Augustine with the aim to provide families with better educational options for their disabled students. For over 40 years, Sister Elizabeth Marie Stoup served as principal, pushing the boundaries of education for the disabled and shaping the lives of more than 1,500 students.
“When Morning Star School opened 55 years ago, Sr. Elizabeth’s vision was cutting edge for its time,” said Henry Fortier, secretary for education and superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Orlando. “The Sisters of St. Joseph created a place where children were engaged as learners, loved with the dignity intended as children of God, and respected as contributing members of the community. This occurred at a time when society separated children with disabilities placing them in large, state-run institutions. Morning Star School began before any of the legislation in the mid-70s that started to change the landscape and society’s understanding of people with intellectual disabilities. It was truly unique for its time.”
Morning Star aimed to develop an educational model based on skill, patience, and love that prepared their students for full participation in society. The school was at the vanguard of the shift in the education of students with disabilities and has remained committed to continuing that tradition.
Today the school incorporates health programs developed through partnerships with leaders in the medical community. They have a registered nurse on site four days a week. Morning Star also incorporates the same classroom technology that you would find in other Catholic schools. Smartboards, projectors, touch screens, IPads on a 1:1 ratio, and other aids are used to increase the value of the Morning Star experience.
“All people are created equal in God’s eyes,” said Fortier. “Why wouldn’t we provide the same high standard of learning, with the latest technology, in a safe, loving environment that we would for any other students? The mission of Catholic schools is to form the whole child and it is no different at Morning Star. Catholic schools recognize each child as a unique gift from God and focuses on the formation and development of the body, mind and spirit to each individual child’s potential. We are called by our faith and ministry in Catholic education to provide the very best and to bring each child to the fullness of their humanity.”
In adherence to that mission, the school pushes students to excel to their potential. In addition to math, English and other core subjects, Morning Star’s curriculum includes a variety of opportunities for the students to express their talents and creativity while building relationships.
“Morning Star Catholic School puts God first,” said Laura Kunzweiler, whose son, Ian, is enrolled in the school. “It’s a safe environment where students can focus on learning to the very best of their abilities. Not only do they develop friendships, but social and work skills to help them thrive in the mainstream world.”
The Catholic Church partners with parents to educate their children in a way that represents their values and the foundation they are building for the future.
“When families choose to educate their children in a Christ-centered environment they seek the help of the Church,” said Bishop John Noonan, of the Diocese of Orlando.
“The education of children is the sacred responsibility of parents. Parents seek the Church’s cooperation and help in this matter. Morning Star is a very special school that carries on that tradition. It recognizes the dignity and gift that each student is because all children are made in the image and likeness of God,” added Bishop Noonan.