It was three years ago when he first walked through our school gates at Lewisham. He was 14 years old, with complex special needs, and not happy to be starting a new school. However, his parents felt that he was going backwards at his previous school, not really thriving, in fact barely surviving.
Harry was pretty typical of most kids we enrol at Eileen O’Connor Catholic College, established by Sydney Catholic Schools in 2016 as their first special school. He had an intellectual disability, was on the autism spectrum, found it a struggle to communicate his needs, and was highly anxious around both his peers and teachers.
But he was also a typical teenage boy in other ways – he loved music, had a great sense of humour, was keen to make friends, and was eager to please – when it suited him!
So, what could we offer him? Our college caters for students with significant special needs and disabilities but each child, be they in Kindergarten or in Year 12, is unique in his or her own way.
Make no mistake – Harry was a real challenge for our college. It took us many weeks to encourage him to step inside a classroom let alone engage in classroom activities, even longer for him to acknowledge his teacher face-to-face, and many months for him to make a friend.
If you wanted to sum up our approach to education at the college, you could name the things most mentioned by our families: their children are safe at our school; our staff have high aspirations for them; and they are members of a Catholic school community.
So, to unpack…all our staff see students as individuals with unique gifts and talents who learn best when they are safe and treated with respect and dignity.
“All our staff see students as individuals with unique gifts and talents who learn best when they are safe and treated with respect and dignity.”
We also believe that functional literacy and numeracy skills are the key factors that equip our students for life after school – we share with their families a belief that they can all learn new skills and will contribute to their local community later in life as adults.
Most importantly, we are passionate about developing our college as a Catholic community characterised by love and service to others, where we learn about a loving God who has a plan for each of us in life.
We promote these values as an authentic reflection of the life and ministry of our college’s namesake, Eileen O’Connor.
Eileen was a missionary in her local community who saw her ministry as addressing the everyday needs of her neighbours; who treated them as God’s children who deserved love, respect and dignity; and where all individuals were of equal value as human beings despite their disabilities or special needs.
In our own humble way, our college seeks to follow Eileen’s example by addressing the needs of our students in every way possible.
We are committed to growing our college as a Catholic community that offers hope to students and their families as an outward demonstration of God’s love for every individual. Eileen O’Connor is the name given to our college and her example inspires us to share God’s love with our students and their families every day of the school year.
And the future for Harry? He is now in his final year with us, and ready to face the outside world as a young adult.
Over the past couple of years he has successfully completed work experience in his local community; has learnt to communicate with others using our college’s key word signing approach; has learnt to trust his teachers and support staff; but perhaps just as importantly now has a group of friends, some of whom he spends time with on weekends.
While Harry still faces considerable challenges in life because of his disabilities, he is now a young man with greater confidence and a suite of skills that will better equip for life after school.
Next year he is expected to start a job with the community organisation he recently spent time with at work experience and his family are full of expectation and hope for his future. In our own way, we share that hope for all our students at Eileen O’Connor…
Dr Ian Jackson is the Executive Principal of Eileen O’Connor Catholic College, Lewisham.