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 for their children.”
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
When I’m performing it’s like I’m so much more confident. In that moment, I don’t have any worries in the world. It’s like heaven. I love it. – Meg Mac, chart-topping singer-songwriter and graduate of The McDonald College
Does that sound like your child? Do you want to support your child’s natural abilities but find it hard to fit lessons/training/auditions around school and homework? If so, The McDonald College in Sydney’s Inner West might be the solution to your dilemma.
Centrally located in North Strathfield, the independent co-ed performing arts school nurtures talented students from years 3 to 12.
Its unique immersive approach emphasises academic excellence while allowing students to pursue their passions for two hours every day with dedicated tuition in either acting, ballet, dance, music, musical theatre or elite tennis. With all the coaching provided in-school, students can focus intensively on their training free of the demands involved in commuting to far-flung extra-curricular activities.
To develop their gifts fully, students often need to perform or compete at an elite level. The McDonald College offers students flexible schedules to help them meet their out-of-school commitments while ensuring that they maintain their academic studies.
Many students have the gift of natural ability but require specialised support to convert their gifts into the talent necessary for outstanding performance.
These students do best when their exceptional qualities are cultivated and sympathetically managed says principal Maxine Kohler.
“Gifted and talented children are uniquely special and are often acutely aware of their difference in relation to their peers.
“Teaching these students requires a deep understanding of the personality traits that feed their creativity,” she says.
The school’s success is evident in the achievements of its performing arts alumni including pop star Meg Mac, Romper Stomper star Sophie Lowe and Heath Ledger scholarship winner Mojean Aria.
In 2013, the college added tennis to its roster of specialist programs partnering with Voyager Tennis Academy. With two international championship wins this year, the school won the NSW Tennis Award for Most Outstanding School.
Powering every star is a deep well of creativity. In supporting and celebrating this characteristic the college produces not only excellent performers but high academic achievers well prepared for the modern workplace.
Once considered the preserve of artists, performers and advertisers, creativity is of increasing practical value throughout our fast-changing global economy.
At the 2016 World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting in Davos, it was named, along with critical thinking and complex problem solving, as one of the three primary skills requisite for success in the next decade.
With the rise of robotics and artificial intelligence entailed in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, humankind’s unique creative capacity is of greater importance than ever, the WEF predicts in its 2016 The Future of Jobs report.
“Creativity will become one of the top three skills workers will need. With the avalanche of new products, new technologies and new ways of working, workers are going to have to become more creative in order to benefit from these changes,” the WEF says.
This WEF’s prognosis is borne out by Year 10 acting student and entrepreneur Ali Kitinas who, at 16, is believed to be the nation’s youngest CEO.
Her beauty product company Freedom Scrub recycles coffee grounds to produce an ethical and sustainable skin cleanser. A portion of the profits is donated to the Hope Foundation Hospital providing health and medical services to impoverished children in Kolkata, India.
The social enterprise has attracted wide media attention and Ali counts Virgin Airlines founder Richard Branson as a mentor but performance remains her first love.
“I’m a very passionate performer, but I always knew that it would be really hard to gain financial security in that field,” she told Mamamia. “That’s why I went into business, so that I could have the financial security to pursue my other passions.”
Talented, accomplished and ambitious: Ali’s self-assured dynamism is emblematic of the The McDonald College ethos.
“Our environment is supportive and nurturing of creativity enabling us to graduate students that are lateral thinkers and excited about life beyond school. Whether their chosen career is on the stage as a performer or in the world of medicine, law or global business, our students are confident communicators, distinguished leaders and diverse role models,” says Principal Kohler.