St Lucy’s: A special school for special students now expanding into the secondary years

Growing … St Lucy’s School is moving towards K-12.

Wahroonga’s much-loved Catholic primary school for students with intellectual disabilities is offering Year 7 places next year and adding subsequent year levels to become a K-12 school by 2024.

“Rising demand for special education and the popularity of St Lucy’s School are the driving forces behind the school’s expansion,” says Principal, Mr David Raphael.

“Population growth in northern Sydney has led to an increasing demand which needs to be catered to, for students and families,” Mr Raphael says. “We have students from Parramatta to the Central Coast.”

Responding to demand … St Lucy’s principal David Raphael with students.

St Lucy’s School currently has 105 students at its main campus in Wahroonga and offers satellite programs for another 30 children at schools in Narrabeen and Narraweena, on Sydney’s Northern Beaches.    

An ambitious building program commencing next year will see the construction of 16 new classrooms to modernise the school’s learning environments and cater for an eventual 100 secondary students by 2024.

“We’re designing a whole new complex to create a purpose-built facility for students with special education needs and we’ll re-purpose the old classrooms for the library and other uses. We’re building a car park for staff with a kiss and drop area to take traffic off the road and increase safety,” Mr Raphael says.

New era … drawings for St Lucy’s planned complex.

St Lucy’s School adheres to principles of the Reggio Emilia philosophy of education that emphasises experiential learning and the symbolic “languages” of the creative arts.

“All students who come into the school have a diagnosed intellectual disability and quite often they have other disabilities as well.”

“We accept each child as they are and work with their interests on an individual basis to help them access the curriculum. By communicating through artistic expression, their interests in the Arts helps to lead them on their learning journey,” Mr Raphael says.

Art of communication … at St Lucy’s, students learn to express themselves through the Creative Arts.

This approach is especially well-suited to students with intellectual disabilities, he says.

“We have a student who was non-verbal and loved the Art Studio and painting; he liked a very dark palette — almost black. On this particular day, his teacher asked him what colour he would like to paint with and he replied, ‘Blue please.’ It was the first words he’d ever spoken and through this language of art making, he has gradually acquired more traditional language skills,” Mr Raphael explains.

With about 60 per cent of St Lucy’s students on the Autism Spectrum — the development of communication skills is at the heart of the school’s mission to foster independence and self-determination.

The school uses an integrated approach incorporating technological aids such as Proloquo2Go, a symbol-based communication app that helps students express themselves with voice-output communication, and Key Word Sign. The school’s staff are proficient signers and the school offers workshops for parents and siblings to learn the basics of sign language to facilitate intra-family communication. Teachers are supported by two teacher’s aides per class and the school’s occupational therapist, speech pathologists and psychologist.

Tech talk … the Prolo2Go app helps St Lucy’s students to acquire communication skills.

Preparing students for adult life will be a central aim for secondary students, Mr Raphael says.

“We’re introducing a Life Skills curriculum developed by the NSW Education Standards Authority. This means that Maths, English and the rest of the NSW curriculum subjects can be designed for the individual student,” he says, describing it as a “competency-based approach to education” that will result in a Record of School Achievement or Higher School Certificate credential.

“In years 9 onward, we’ll be introducing a VET program. Our situation gives us access to a whole range of industrial and retail sites to give our students work experience in the community,” Mr Raphael says.

The school’s commitment to practical education is seen in its Mathematics with Meaning program that teaches children real-life applications of numeracy such as how to use money and identify bus numbers.

“The functional elements of life need to be deliberately taught so that students can be as independent as possible in their adult lives and as effective as possible in the community and be advocates for themselves in the adult world,” Mr Raphael says.

But St Lucy’s is more than just a school, it nurtures the whole family, Mr Raphael says.   

“We try to offer as much love and support as we can not only to students but to parents and siblings as well. Siblings can often feel a bit left out. It’s very important to support the family as much as we can. We do this through our pastoral care, through our psychologist, through our community nights, and by providing a place for parents just to come here and talk to each other about their children and their challenges.”

“We’re passionate about what we do,” Mr Raphael says, and consequently the school’s influence is felt well beyond its immediate community.

“We have a number of very supportive schools nearby: Prouille, Abbotsleigh, Knox, Santa Sabina, Shore. They engage with our students as play buddies, participants in our Creative Arts programs, student volunteers at our holiday program and camp, and other student immersion experiences. It’s very powerful for the visiting students and they often go back and help raise funds for us. We advocate for children with disabilities generally to be included and accepted; simple things like lift access at a train station can make a huge impact.”

For more information on St Lucy’s and its move to K-12 please see their website: stlucys.nsw.edu.au

 

New option for special needs students

Friends forever … St Gabriel’s expansion into secondary schooling will allow students to complete their education together in one place.

There’s a new high school for children with special needs in Sydney’s north-west.

From January 2019, St Gabriel’s School, a Catholic primary special education school in Castle Hill, will expand to offer places in Year 7.

A progressive roll-out of the following year levels will see the school offer full K-12 classes by 2023.

St Gabriel’s secondary school will continue the work of the primary school, providing education to students with diagnosed conditions including autism, mild to moderate intellectual disabilities and sensory impairments.

Principal Jon Franzin says St Gabriel’s expansion is driven by the needs of the school community.

“The transition point between primary and secondary is particularly challenging for parents. Being able to offer a continuum of services in K-12 is something that the parent community has been longing for their children.”

Gospel values … St Gabriel’s principal Jon Franzin believes every student has the right to a quality, hope-filled education.

Previously, about half of St Gabriel’s students graduated to its sister high school, St Edmund’s College in Wahroonga on Sydney’s upper north shore, with the remainder finding places in other independent schools or the public system.

Rapid population growth in Sydney’s west though has strengthened the demand for a local special needs high school, particularly for parents seeking a Catholic education for their children, Mr Franzin says.

“Travel time to St Edmund’s is significant, especially for families who live west of St Gabriel’s and finding a place in the Catholic setting can be challenging,” he says.

St Gabriel’s and St Edmund’s are co-ed schools in the Edmund Rice tradition. They place a strong emphasis on Catholic traditions of love, justice, freedom and inclusion to promote acceptance and develop positive self-esteem in students.

These schools offer “holistic education for the child, not just about curriculum; it’s about Christian values that we espouse and live out,” he says.

Holistic education … St Gabriel’s emphasises Catholic traditions to promote acceptance and the development of self-esteem in students.

As principal of both schools, Mr Franzin says the development of life skills is at the heart of their mission to equip students with the ability to participate meaningfully in the wider community as adults.

“All students will undertake our Pathways to Work program; part of that is one day a week work experience in the community,” he says, with the aim of placing students in some kind of work role when they finish school. “Depending on needs, some will get supported employment or volunteer work. Where students have the capacity, we’re aiming to get them into regularised employment.”

St Edmund’s College has had great success with its hospitality industry training program and St Gabriel’s will also focus on food and beverage service with a view to incorporating agricultural studies in the future.

Students have the opportunity to complete the National Education Standards Authority (NESA) Life Skills course and to complete a partial or full Vocational and Educational Training certificate.

While supported learning for special needs students is offered in the public system, Mr Franzin says his schools offer considerable benefits for these children in terms of experience, expertise and Gospel values.

“We are inspired by the very strong belief that the young people we serve have a fundamental right to a quality education that is meaningful, purposeful and hope filled,” he says.

Individualised learning … Technology helps students to learn at their own level to reach their potential.

At St Gabriel’s, highly-qualified teachers and learning support officers are supplemented by developmental experts to ensure the best outcome for students, he says.

“We have a whole-school model for occupational therapy and speech pathology, working one-on-one with teachers to support students and develop the capacity of the teacher.”

Small classes of 10 or fewer students allow teachers to produce individualised learning plans to meet a range of abilities and the schools’ embrace of technology-enabled Blended Learning methods extends students to maximise their potential, Mr Franzin says.

“Our staff are very skilled at differentiating the curriculum. We’ll be using an educational platform to help students learn as independently as possible so students can work through at their own level and develop their skills. Students will be able to engage at a range of multiple points to meet their needs.

“For 96 years we’ve been at the forefront of special education, initially for the hearing impaired. We can tailor the curriculum to students’ needs, support parents in that community, and our students form genuine friendships that are established, profound and lifelong,” he says.

Proof positive: Knox Grammar transforms traditional education for the 21st century

Total Fitness … Knox Grammar School’s innovative Positive Education program is a quantifiable success.

Boasting stately buildings and manicured grounds, Knox Grammar School on Sydney’s Upper North Shore would appear to be the epitome of old school.

But looks are deceiving. Knox is in its 10th year of a transformational project to bring pastoral care to the forefront of the school’s culture. Its Total Fitness program broadens the school’s remit to cultivate students’ characters as well as their minds. Integrating the principles of Positive Education into a traditional academic setting, Knox’s cutting-edge methodology seeks to equip students with the knowledge and life skills required to flourish in a globalised economy.   

“We are renewing the traditional model of education through thoughtful innovation and a focus on preparing students for a rapidly changing world,” says Scott James, the school’s newly appointed headmaster.

“The 21st century is an interconnected, diverse world. Students need to develop empathy and collaboration skills to prepare themselves for the evolving workplace of the future.”

Positive Educator … Knox Grammar School’s newly appointed headmaster Scott James.

The program has special relevance for Mr James who initiated a re-think of pastoral care when he came to Knox in 2009 as head of the Senior School. An extensive research review lead the school council to adopt Positive Education as an evidence-based framework for a rejuvenated school culture. Working with Sydney’s Positive Psychology Institute Knox developed its data-driven Total Fitness Positive Education program in alignment with the school’s unique heritage and values.

“Total Fitness is about holistic education. We focus on the whole student — academic, social, physical and spiritual aspects — based on the science and evidence of Positive Education. All our staff are trained in it, which allows them to focus on the optimal functioning of students in our care,” says Mr James.

Since its implementation in 2011, Knox has tracked the program’s impact on staff and students. The results demonstrate improvement in key areas of the school with the Knox community enjoying significantly greater stakeholder satisfaction than that of comparable schools.

While the data offer quantifiable proof that Knox is tracking in the right direction, Positive Education has made a difference at every level of school life, Mr James says, by nurturing “non-cognitive life skills, such as “empathy, tolerance, compassion and understanding of other people’s points of view”.

“I can see it in the everyday development of these skills in the staff and students. You can see it in the classroom and on the sporting field.”

The equal emphasis on staff wellbeing distinguishes Positive Education from other pastoral care models and underscores the school’s holistic educational approach.

At Knox, every activity presents a mentoring opportunity. “All our teachers are also mentors trained in Positive Education,” says Mr James.

Holistic approach … Every teacher at Knox Grammar School is also a mentor trained in Positive Education.

Adult guidance is supplemented by ‘boy to man’ mentor programs, Mr James says, “because we believe boys learning from boys is critical”.

Knox is a perennial high achiever in the HSC but recent years have seen even better results with the school ranking in the top 20 last year.

Mr James attributes this happy outcome to the extensive support the school offers students in those stressful senior years. “In years 11 and 12 we have a senior academic mentor to help the boys with time management and goal setting. Students have a mentor for the pastoral side and the academic side,” Mr James says.

In the school’s boarding houses Positive Education extends to every aspect of student life. “Our staffing structures facilitate a family atmosphere for boarders with a husband and wife team leading each house, while our “whole of life” boarding programs give boys opportunities to acquire life skills and credentials,” Mr James says. “We support them to do their RSA course, barista courses, learner driving as well as co-curricular activities.”

“Our boarders are extremely successful academically. There’s no doubt that the academic support and availability of resources 24/7 that contributes to that,” he says.

Proud heritage … Knox Grammar School offers best-practice education in a traditional setting.

Improved wellbeing and academic outcomes are just the beginning though. Mr James has an ambitious and wide-ranging plan for the school’s progress in the years to come.

He is “committed to building a learning community of the highest quality” that will empower students to succeed to their fullest potential. Central to this project is the cultivation of core character traits: integrity, resilience and the pursuit of excellence.

“My vision is to be an exemplary school developing within a caring, Christian environment to produce young people with a sure knowledge of who they are and how they want to live,” Mr James says.

“I have key focus areas for the school: leadership, teaching excellence, learning excellence, Knox Total Fitness and global mindfulness, which is critical to give students the opportunity to engage in social justice programs, community service and immersion activities. These experiences give students a sense of mastery and efficacy and help to develop rapport with other people,” he says.

“Knox is a school for boys of all abilities, races and creeds where they’re supported as equals. With our understanding of mental fitness we can teach boys to deal with setbacks and develop grit. We emphasise ‘stickability’ — staying on task and employing a growth mindset.

“Intelligence is not innate but can be developed.”

 

References

Knox Grammar School website
http://www.knox.nsw.edu.au/

Positive Psychology At Work: Research & Applications – Part 3 School Case Study & Impacts
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-x5ksxyHC8k

Positive Psychology At Work: Research & Applications – Part 4 School Case Study & Impacts
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ExTxdUuUvkk