NORTH CHARLESTON—It is impossible to describe St. John School without understanding Principal Carole Anne White’s mission and vision of education.
After 52 years in Catholic education overall and 17 years at St. John, White officially retires this month. Her legacy, a school with a uniquely inclusive environment that has embraced countless lives, will continue with the mission she established.
One of the oldest Catholic schools in the diocese, St. John is a hidden gem where traditional and non-traditional students learn together in small classrooms. The atmosphere is palpably welcoming.
White dreamed of an environment that was open to children of all ethnic, social, and cultural backgrounds, and those with special needs — something, she said, that the world of education is only now beginning to achieve. Her vision took shape over the course of her career and out of a strong belief that all children progress when they are not separated based on ability, or worse, denied a Catholic education because of special needs.
“I believe that every child can learn, in his or her own way and own time,” she said.
At present, about half of St. John’s students have special needs requirements, such as ABA therapists for those on the autism spectrum or special equipment for those with sensory processing issues.
A peace pledge, which students and faculty recite each morning, serves as a guide for behavior and discipline, and shapes the ethos of their community. At the beginning of each academic year, students sign the oath with a handprint on the central hallway.
“The beauty of our schools is our children — in the way they relate to one another and their acceptance of others,” she said. “Children naturally sense when another child has special needs and reach out. We live by the peace pledge — the principles of Christian community. The children often remind each other of the pledge.”
Discipline, White said, sometimes means coming to her office and sitting with Happy, her 15-year-old rescue dog and faithful companion.
Christian Brother Ed Bergeron is the parish life facilitator and has been at St. John for 19 years. He was hooked by White’s dream from the beginning and worked with her to make it a reality.
“Dreams take time and effort to become a reality. While we have not yet fully achieved the dream, we are well on the way,” said Brother Ed.
When he first arrived, Brother Ed was tasked with finding a new principal when school’s enrollment was steadily declining. Gaye Rowzie, then-superintendent of Catholic schools, directed him to White.
At the time, she was serving as the founding principal of Summerville Catholic.
“Occasionally in life, the stars, planets and entire cosmos align perfectly and things come together in unexpected and wonderful ways,” Brother Ed recalled of their initial meeting. Her vision of what the school would be “stole his heart,” he said.
White is a native of Charleston and the fourth of 10 children. She began her career at age 18 as a Sister of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy, where she served until 1992, teaching in South Carolina and briefly in New Jersey, then at Summerville before the opening at St. John and the opportunity to make her dream a reality.
“I was able to accentuate the positive of having smaller numbers at St. John’s and open it up to children with special needs and different backgrounds, as well as children from the neighborhood,” White said.
St. John students currently come from the tri-county area. White said few neighborhood children attend the school, although it has had a positive influence on the once high-crime area. Although tuition is low relative to most private schools, it is not a cost low-income families can afford.
Christian Brother Damian Ryan, who assumed the role of president of St. John School at the beginning of the academic year, said keeping classes small and tuition affordable is challenging.
At the same time, he said it is a vision for education that works.
“It is remarkable to see the transformation that has taken place in some of our children since September,” he said. Scholarships help make the school a success.
Despite not having all of the latest technology, St. John boasts a solid basic education that results in academic and developmental achievements. One alumnus with Down syndrome, nicknamed “the mayor” because of his bright personality, just graduated from the College of Charleston.
Sandra Leatherwood, diocesan director for Catholic education, said White has been a tremendous blessing.
“She has a special touch, and a vision that is embracing,” Leatherwood said.
White’s dream has extended beyond the walls of St. John. Her sister, Rosie Ryan, an admissions officer at Bishop England High School, said her sibling’s dream was instrumental in establishing the Options program for students with special needs at BE, plus the Reach program at the College of Charleston. Several other area colleges now offer programs for students with special needs too.
Ryan said her sister plans to volunteer after she retires officially. “There are a lot of children who need help. It’s a part of who Carole Anne is, and I am sure she will continue her work with children.”
By Irene Lagen | Special to The Miscellany