Three Special Learning Centers Live Out Missions of Faith and Community

The Diocese of Allentown is blessed to have three special learning centers – John Paul II Center in Shillington, Mercy School for Special Learning in Allentown, and St. Joseph Center for Special Learning in Schuylkill Haven – dedicated to providing a Catholic faith-based education option for students who learn differently.

During Catholic Schools Week – this year Jan. 28-Feb. 3, 2024 – we celebrate unity in both faith and community, and we can find great inspiration in how our three special learning centers live out their missions of faith and community every day.

John Paul II Center for Special Learning

The John Paul II (JPII) Center opened its doors in 1982 to 16 students on South Sixth Street in Reading. In 2002, the center added an adult program. Now in Shillington, the center includes 54 students and an adult program of 37 participants.

At the heart of the JPII Center’s mission is an expression of the Catholic Church’s teaching on the sanctity of life and helping students to reach their God-given potential.

“Our teachers, therapists and aides work together to assist our students with reaching their God-given potential,” said Melissah Jablonski, Director of Development. “Not every student learns the same way, so we adapt our approach based on individualized needs. We know that inside each of them is a spark and that’s why we challenge them on a daily basis.”

When students turn 14 years of age, they work with a transition coordinator, teachers, therapists, and their families on a path to graduation. Not all students’ paths are the same. Some focus on mastering life skills, others on gaining employment or volunteerism in the community.

“We meet them where they are to find their gifts and to help them grow,” said Jablonski.

Mercy School for Special Learning

“We want our students to become the best versions of themselves,” said Beth Grys, M.Ed., Principal of Mercy School for Special Learning.

At Mercy School, she said, a dedicated staff “provides a solid, strong, faith-filled education,” and helps special students gain valuable employment and social skills through its “strong job works program.”

Mercy School began in 1954 in four rooms at Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Allentown with 22 special needs students from 15 different parishes.

The school has grown since then, occupying a new school building in 1962, and in 1987, the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools made it the first program for children who are mentally handicapped in Pennsylvania to receive accreditation.

By 2003, total enrollment at Mercy grew to 102 students. Programs extended to include early childhood education, a summer camp program, and vocational education. While enrollment today is smaller, the mission of the school remains the same and is stronger than ever.

“Christ welcomes each child, especially the special child,” said Gris, in her eighth year as principal. “Special students have always been at my heart. They need champions.”

St. Joseph Center for Special Learning

A day at St. Joseph Center (SJC) is a balance of spiritual, academic, recreational, and therapeutic activities individually tailored to each student.

SJC “not only gives [students] a sense of belonging and acceptance, but also gives them the desire to learn,” said Principal Bob Giba. Giba started at SJC in 2015 as director of the Over 21 Day Program and became principal of the school in 2018.

The school recently moved into the former St. Ambrose Elementary School in Schuylkill Haven after operating for 68 years in Pottsville, and now looks forward to expanding and offering services to more students.

SJC provides pre-vocational, academic, social, and religious education to 23 school-age children, and offers a state-licensed program to 12 adults unable to join the workforce and needing to attain further skills.

SJC provides “a safe environment and prepares students for life after St. Joseph Center,” said Giba. “Life and vocational skills are a big part of our mission.”

Giba said the faculty builds strong relationships with students and their families to create a sense of community that goes beyond the classroom.

“What we do here is not an end product,” said Giba. “We have strong relationships with our families. We make them feel a part of our families. We strive very much to have our parents not feel alone.”

Photos: St. Joseph Center, John Paul II Center, Mercy School.


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