A lasting legacy for a short life

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Dr Dan White received a guard of honour outside St Mary’s Cathedral before the Thanksgiving Mass for his 10 years of service as head of Sydney Catholic Schools. PHOTO: Kitty Beale
Dr Dan White received a guard of honour outside St Mary’s Cathedral before the Thanksgiving Mass for his 10 years of service as head of Sydney Catholic Schools. PHOTO: Kitty Beale

With a “classroom of 70,000 students” and 10 years’ as the Executive Director of Sydney Catholic Schools, Dr Dan White has much to be proud of.

Strong improvement in NAPLAN and HSC results, the introduction of the Newman Gifted Education Program, the Family Educator scheme and the Pope Francis Awards are all products of his dedicated work.

But it’s the establishment of the pioneering Eileen O’Connor Catholic College for children with moderate intellectual disabilities that is his most treasured legacy.

Dr Dan lost his daughter Jacqui to a rare genetic disorder at just four years of age and it’s been his life-long commitment to honour her short life.

He said she had made him “a strong advocate for those with special needs” and ultimately planted the seed to create the only school in the Archdiocese for those with learning difficulties.

Opened in 2016 with just 19 students in Years 7 to 10, the school will expand to a K-12 college next year, incorporating an Early Intervention Centre and a Centre of Excellence for Inclusive Education.

“What we always dreamed about for these children is that they would learn in a community of love – and seeing the Eileen O’Connor school thrive is very, very rewarding,” he said.

“I will forever be proud that the system’s first dedicated school for students with special needs was opened under my leadership.

Dr Dan White at the 2016 official opening and blessing of the Eileen O'Connor Catholic College in Lewisham with Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP and student Jackson Mason. Photo: Therese Spruhan
Dr Dan White at the 2016 official opening and blessing of the Eileen O’Connor Catholic College in Lewisham with Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP and student Jackson Mason. Photo: Therese Spruhan

“Losing little Jacqui was one of the most difficult times of my life and very much shaped who I am today.

“Born with a rare genetic condition, she was diagnosed with a brain tumour at three-and-a-half and died six months later.

“Only with us for a short time, she has made me the person I am today and knowing the Eileen O’Connor School is there for young people like her makes me very proud.”

More than 2000 people gathered at St Mary’s Cathedral this week to thank Dr Dan for his 40 years’ service to Catholic education in Australia and wish him well in his retirement.

All 152 schools in the Archdiocese were represented at the Mass celebrated by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP who said “we have been truly blessed to have had a man of deep faith, intellect and integrity lead our schools”.

However, it is Dr Dan who argues he has been the one blessed in heading up Sydney Catholic Schools following six years as the director of Catholic education for the Archdiocese of Hobart.

“I honestly believe I’ve had the best job in Australia, it has been such a privilege to be the leader of this great community,” he said.

“I was very fortunate to succeed Br Kelvin (Canavan) and had the joy of building on the strong foundations he laid.

Dr Dan is escorted by students into the Cathedral. PHOTO: Kitty Beale
Dr Dan is escorted by students into the Cathedral. PHOTO: Kitty Beale

“It has been a marvelous opportunity and given the time over I wouldn’t change a thing.”

During his time as executive director, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of students achieving top performance bands in the HSC and NAPLAN.

For example, in 2008 37.3% of Year 12 students obtained Band 5 and 6 results. By 2018, that figure was 47.1%, nearly 10% higher than the State average.

Similarly in NAPLAN, Year 3 reading results shot up from 52.2% in 2013 to just under 70% in 2018, 15 percentage points higher than the State.

And while Dr Dan is incredibly proud of the academic results, the programs aimed at strengthening the Catholic community introduced under his leadership have also bought him incredible joy.

“I have always looked at my role as getting souls to heaven,” he said.

“I have approached it with a dual moral purpose – to provide spiritual and outstanding learning communities.

“I have always felt I have had a classroom of 70,000 students, they are all my kids and I feel very responsible for them.

Students carry banners representing every one of Sydney’s Catholic schools. PHOTO: Kitty Beale
Students carry banners representing every one of Sydney’s Catholic schools. PHOTO: Kitty Beale

“And while as a teacher it’s sad walking away from them, I don’t feel God is finished with me just yet and has plans for my future.”

More than a bit nervous about the next step in his life, one thing he is certain about is his decision to hand the reigns on to former head of the Catholic Commission for Employment Relations and director of Sydney’s Parish 2020 project, Tony Farley.

He said he is very much looking forward to spending time finishing his eighth book, fossicking for rocks, lecturing and most importantly spending time with wife Sue.

“I am completely at peace with my decision to retire,” he said.

“I do have a lot of things I want to do but mostly spend time with my wife who is also a teacher and has sacrificed so much to allow me to do this job for the past decade.

“We met at Mass giving each other the sign of peace when we were 18 and have been together ever since.

“It’s been a wonderful partnership and a real shared-ministry, some of my best decisions have been made when I shared them with her and some of my worst when I didn’t.

“I am very excited for our future together not to mention the sleep ins.”