Closed Gulfport school gets new life

GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - When the doors closed at a historic Gulfport school, a window of opportunity opened. Back in May, the teachers, parents, and alumni from St. John Catholic Elementary said their painful goodbyes to a school that had been educating children for than a century. The Catholic Diocese of Biloxi closed the school because of a drop in attendance. Now St. John is again a place of learning.

Tracey Johnson said when it comes to teaching a child with Autism every small step is a major accomplishment.

"There's a joy that you can't explain when they understand the concept of a nickel or they get a knock-knock joke," said Johnson. "It's just one of the greatest feelings in the world."

The CARES School Day program offers individualized instruction to elementary and middle school students who've struggled in public school because of behavioral or emotional issues or because of developmental disorders. The skills students learn are designed to reunite them with their classmates.

"When a child can go in and function as one of those 20 rather than the one that causes a school to shut down, it's worth it,"said Laurie Heiden is the Division Director of Education Services.

Mississippi Children's Home Services already runs CARES schools in Hattiesburg and Jackson. When looking for a home on the Coast, officials chose the recently closed St. John Elementary in Gulfport.

"They needed to have a way to pay for the space. We needed a place for kids,"said John Damon, MS Children's Home Services Chief Operating Officer. "It was a real win-win."

Cindy Hahn is the first principal for the new CARES School and was the last principal at St. John Elementary.

"I was thrilled to know that I could continue to remain here in this building and continue to service children,"said Hahn. "This is a fabulous agency. They're actually celebrating their 100 years and we just completed our 110th year at St. John so we're continuing to educate children for many many years so we're excited that it will stay here in Gulfport."

Officials said students from the six southernmost counties are eligible to attend the CARES School Day program. However, the student must be referred by his or her school district.

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