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.

Imagine dragons — learning the Glenaeon way

A vivid green dragon extends its wings and breathes a volcanic gust of flame before settling quietly on the school book page. Is this a scene from Harry Potter? Maybe the opening frames of a new Disney blockbuster? Perhaps a Year 3 arithmetic textbook as envisioned and hand-drawn by the student herself?

Where imagination takes flight … Glenaeon primary school students create their own textbooks.

If you guessed the last, you may already be familiar with the central pillars of the Steiner teaching method: creativity, imagination, experiential learning and a holistic approach to education that aligns with the developmental stages of childhood.

“We have a picture of child development that lies behind what we do. At each stage of the school journey there are specific ways that we work with the child to match what we have observed over time to be the ways children learn,” says Glenaeon Rudolf Steiner School principal Andrew Hill. “It produces happy, adjusted children because we’re meeting the child’s specific needs at each stage.”

This developmental emphasis is seen most distinctly in the early years of Steiner schooling when children are encouraged to learn through active play and imitation. Singing, dancing, movement and story time are complemented with practical skills like knitting, cooking, sewing and gardening. Learning is almost entirely a physical activity at this stage with formal literacy and numeracy lessons delayed until students are intellectually ready.

Organic education … Glenaeon students enjoy an outdoor lesson in the school’s garden.

“They go through a change around the age of seven when they start to learn through more abstract thought, rather than concrete bodily experience; they start to learn through imagination and images. That’s why they’re so receptive to stories and the arts,” Mr Hill says.

This is followed by the third stage of learning when children acquire conceptual and analytical skills, Mr Hill says. “Gradually, the rational intellect unfolds, around 10-12, that’s when they start to make connections between things. They can see cause and effect and that becomes the way they learn as adults.”

“The broad benefit of a Steiner education is learning in ways that are more natural. I like to think of it as like organic farming. It’s organic education. We fit in with the child’s natural rate of growth,” Mr Hill says.

Learning through doing … active learning through creative pursuits is a hallmark of Steiner education.

In practice, this means the emphasis in the first years of schooling is on developing the foundations of learning through creative pursuits. One of the first activities is drawing, which leads into writing, which leads into reading.

As Mr Hill explains: “Children create their own first readers, handwritten and illustrated in Year 1. Teachers tell stories to build imagination and stimulate a creative understanding, which, in turn, is the foundation of comprehension in literacy. The research shows that they quickly catch up to, and typically surpass, students in other systems. Late is more: evidence from an international, peer-reviewed study shows that as a group, students from Steiner schools start reading later but then exceed the reading fluency of mainstream students who started earlier.”

Mr Hill says his personal experience bears out these findings, even in the occasional case where students appear to be worryingly slow to catch on.

“It’s a case of the Hare and the Tortoise: slow and steady wins the race. Like Finland, we don’t teach formal reading until around age seven and it takes another year or so before it kicks in. We had one girl who still wasn’t getting it when she was eight. She had all the elements in place, we’d measured everything. The parents were anxious but they trusted us and, eventually, just after age nine, she started to read. She went through a very gentle, natural process and by the time she was 10, she was reading ravenously. She’s now a pediatrician,” Mr Hill says.

“Not all children who are slow to read fall into this category of course, and students with learning issues are assessed and supported with a range of strategies.”

Theory and practice … the Steiner method complements a rigorous academic education with practical entrepreneurial skills.

Steiner education, also known as Waldorf education, is named for its founder, Austrian polymath Rudolf Steiner, who also developed the theory of biodynamic agriculture.

He established the Steiner movement in 1919 with the opening of a school at the Waldorf-Astoria factory in Stuttgart, Germany. The school was an immediate success and Steiner schools quickly proliferated throughout Britain and Europe.

In 1957, the movement came to Australia with the founding of Glenaeon Rudolf Steiner School. There are now more than 40 Steiner schools throughout Australia as well as Steiner streams in some public schools in Victoria and South Australia.

The Steiner method has some defining characteristics rarely seen in mainstream schools.

In the primary school years, students have one teacher throughout years 1-6. This approach is based on the Nordic model, Mr Hill says, and the aim is to create a secure, tightly-knit class community in which students are very well known to their teachers and to each other.

Immersive learning is another hallmark of Steiner education. School days begin with a two-hour “main lesson”, in which a broad topic is taught from a multi-disciplinary perspective for a period of three weeks. Teachers present the material with drama and artistry to capture students’ imaginations and inspire them to produce their own beautifully illustrated textbooks.

“Even with Maths they try to build the lesson around an imaginative story that is going to excite their students and keep their interest throughout. They’re learning all the standard Maths but it’s filled out with this wonderful rich imagination,” Mr Hill says.

Committed to developing global citizens, Glenaeon pioneered languages in primary school in Sydney: all students learn two foreign languages up to Year 6 and then choose one to continue learning in Years 7-10, after which it becomes an elective.

Global outlook … Glenaeon students learn German and Japanese in the primary years and choose one to continue studying in high school.

In primary school, students develop their human faculties first: drawing, handwriting, playing musical instruments, and importantly learning to use tools to make useful and beautiful artifacts in textiles, wool, wood and metal. The school calls its use of technology the Artisan program which builds practical and entrepreneurial skills. Digital technology on the other hand is eschewed until high school when ICT is integrated into learning. Natural materials are used as much as possible throughout the school.

Once students reach high school level, Glenaeon is not particularly different to a mainstream school because teenagers learn similarly to adults, Mr Hill says. However, the five foundational programs of Steiner education: Academic, Aesthetic, Artisan, Active Wilderness and Altruistic are intrinsic to all the years.

The effect of these programs is seen in Glenaeon’s excellent HSC results, its emphasis on the creative and performing arts and craftsmanship, its extensive outdoor education program and its deep emphasis on mutual respect and personal responsibility.

The school’s low incidence of bullying is consistent with research showing that bullying is a rare occurrence in Steiner schools generally. Mr Hill attributes this happy outcome to Glenaeon’s discouragement of competitiveness between students.

“It’s a very rigorous education but it’s done with this more positive relational quality of working with students and a class as a community. Students work and do well, not to beat other children, but to be their best and that has an effect on the mood in the classroom,” Mr Hill says.

Creative class … Glenaeon offers a holistic, child-centric education.

With its focus on creativity, wellbeing and self-reliance Steiner education is a child-centric pedagogy whose time has come, Mr Hill says. “Many schools talk about positive education these days but we’ve always been positive. Positivity is implicit in the method we use.”

“We pioneered a holistic approach to education that genuinely fosters the overall wellbeing of students on all fronts; recognising that a successful life is made up of a balance between intellectual growth, emotional maturity and a practical ability to do things in the world rather than a simplistic academic measure of competence. The ATAR is important as a measure of intellectual excellence, but the world is looking for more than just that as a predictor of personal and professional success.

“I’ve been teaching in different schools for 30 years. The greatest reward is seeing students grow and develop and, after all they work they’ve put into it, become the person they were destined to be.”

 

References:

Children learning to read later catch up to children reading earlier — Sebastian Suggate, Elizabeth Schaughency, Elaine Reese, Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 2013
https://web.uvic.ca/~gtreloar/Articles/Language%20Arts/Children%20learning%20to%20read%20later%20catch%20up%20to%20children%20reading%20earlier.pdf

Addressing bullying in schools: theory and practice — Ken Rigby, Australian Institute of Criminology, 2003
https://aic.gov.au/publications/tandi/tandi259