The 19 students in Eileen O’Connor Catholic College Lewisham’s inaugural class began life at the first Catholic school in the Sydney Archdiocese for students with moderate intellectual disabilities and complex learning needs with different personalities, diagnoses and skills.
Their parents have experienced disability education across government, independent and non-mainstream environments, yet their stories hold a common thread and a common desire – that their children are recognised for what they can do, accepted, and prepared for life after school.
Sans Souci resident Denise Cropp’s daughter Laura, 15, joined Year 8 at the College. She hopes Laura will continue to grow in confidence at the school, which will deliver lessons based on the BOSTES Stage 4 Life Skills curriculum.
Laura has been diagnosed with global developmental delay – an umbrella term which refers to conditions ranging from Autism to Down Syndrome, though she has a brain injury. A keen ocean sailor who visits residents of her local aged care facilities with her companion dog Rosy, Laura is highly sociable but struggles to read, write, or make sense of numbers.
“Laura is a very outgoing child, and went to a mainstream high school confident and happy,” Mrs Cropp said. “We could see within six months that she was starting to struggle.
“She’s very excited to go to Eileen O’Connor and I think that is because of the preparation they’ve done in familiarising the kids with the new environment and allowing them to meet. I feel that there’s a comfort factor there that we’ve never had before.”
It is amazing that the school will also have in-house input from speech pathologists and occupational therapists.
Ainsley Poulos’ son Archie, 12, was born with a rare genetic condition that restricts his communication and clear speech. While mainstream schooling worked well for him at primary level, it became harder to adapt the secondary curriculum to his ability. Principal Ian Jackson’s words hit home for Mrs Poulos when he told parents at EOCC’s information night: “We have high aspirations for your children”.
“Like many parents of children with a disability, my hope is that Archie will be equipped for a life beyond school, make friends and contribute meaningfully to his community in adulthood,” Mrs Poulos said. “Archie requires a lot more repetition and instruction than children in mainstream learning settings to close the gap between his skills and those of his peers.
“It is amazing that the school will also have in-house input from speech pathologists and occupational therapists. This is common in the UK and rare in Australia, but results in better prospects.”
Eileen O’Connor Catholic College’s students will have access to expert support programs including speech therapy, occupational therapy, counselling and vocational education. Students are supported by three classroom teachers and two teachers’ aides as they study English, Maths, Science, Religious Education and Technological and Applied Studies (TAS).
Trudi has an amazing capacity to learn.
Dr Ian Jackson has a doctorate in special education and has worked for 30 years as a principal, teacher and psychologist. He said EOCC was committed to helping students to grow their skills, confidence and social capacity.
“By providing a specialist setting we can provide specialist, holistic support and choice to parents wanting to continue a Catholic education for their children,” Dr Jackson said. “When students leave our College they will be equipped to not only participate in the workplace but ready to face the outside world and live as independently as possible.”
The school will grow to include about 80 students from Years 7 to 12 and enrol Kindergarten students from 2018. Other current students have chosen to travel to the College from Hurstville, Engadine and Sydney’s eastern suburbs. Their choice to enrol at EOCC came as peak lobby group Children with Disability Australia found 68 per cent of parents generally believed that their children were not receiving adequate support at school.
The figures were drawn from a national survey of more than 1000 parents of children with a disability in April 2015. It also found one in four children with disability has been refused enrolment at some point, and 39 per cent of respondents said children with disability were regularly excluded from school activities, such as excursions, because the school did not have the resources to enable them to attend.
Trudi Witt, 13, travels from Earlwood to attend the College. Trudi has a moderate intellectual disability and completed Year 7 in a support unit at a mainstream high school in Marrickville after attending St Lucy’s School at Wahroonga in her primary years. There she had access to literacy intervention and can read simple sentences with clarity. She has a love of music, dance and meeting new people.
Trudi’s mother Renata Meleo said deciding on the best schooling option for a child with a disability could be confusing for parents. “At the early intervention centre we went to when Trudi was four and five I heard comments like ‘There’s no special world for Trudi when she gets out of special school’,” she said. “You’re told to go to a mainstream environment. However from a funding and resources point of view I don’t think they’re set up for students like her.
“Trudi has an amazing capacity to learn,” Ms Meleo said. “Once she has that confidence and sees that staff believe in her she’ll take the ball and run with it.”