Hunter River Community School is a School for Specific Purposes (SSP) that proudly sits on traditional Wonnarua Country in Metford New South Wales.
We pride ourselves on high impact, individualised learning pathways that are provided for students living with complex disabilities. Our students are our greatest resource, and we are learning from them every day. Our vision is to ensure that every student has a voice, opportunity, and a respectful learning environment that promotes abilities and looks outside the box.
My journey and love of education started in school. From an early age I wanted to be a teacher. I remember being in Year 2 at Dungog Primary School speaking about my dream of being an educator. One of my earliest inspirations, Miss Alice Hales, smiled, and nodded, and I clearly remember thinking that was a tick of approval from a higher entity.
I loved school and learning and felt at home in the classroom. Living in a small, rather traditional rural town, I recall the passion of teachers such as Lorraine Hannon, Susan Bear, Bill Stewart and Des Sloman, constantly encouraging me to challenge the expectations and to find adventure in books. My love of reading and quest for knowledge started in their classrooms.
I was the first in my family to attend University, and the day I received my early entry acceptance was a significant milestone in not only my life, but across generations. I would not be sitting here drafting this article without the multilayered support of my family, who embodied the ethos of wanting their children to have more. Within the community we lived, the priority they placed on education was unusual, and their sacrifices to ensure my dreams have been significant.
Supporting people living with disabilities has always been extremely important to me.
I vividly recall seeing a local man Bernie Holstein, walking the streets of Dungog. Bernie lived with Cerebral Palsy and would walk kilometres listening to his ‘tunes’ loudly. The distinctive tones of Slim Dusty would ring out loud and clear as he walked past the playground each day.
The taunts, insults and ignorant comments that were directed toward him, not only by students, shocked and horrified me, and from a 9-year old’s perspective, I could not understand how they could not see what I saw: an amazing man, challenging preconceived ideas and trying to live his best life.
Looking back, that was the moment that my career path became a vehicle to try and effect change.
Upon graduating with my Bachelor of Special Education – Primary, my career has been focused on supporting young people within SPPs. As a teacher I tried to ensure that my students engaged in quality learning opportunities that mirrored their neuro- typical peers.
In a time where curriculum-based teaching in SSPs was the exception, I was extremely fortunate that my mentors, such as Ian Hughes, advocated for curriculum-based learning. Ian’s commitment to challenge a system was inspiring, and something as leaders, we should all be trying to emulate.
My leadership journey over the past 20 years has been underpinned by a strong belief that what we see is not always what is happening with our students. The physical body can house incredible minds that have no voice to express their thoughts, feelings, and opinions. My quest as a Principal, is to encourage staff, families, friends, and community, to look beyond and to provide students with tools and access to be able to showcase their abilities.
I personally do not like the word disability – the ‘dis” automatically implies a deficit, and that is just not true. I advocate and promote that “different does not mean less”. This should be signposted in every school across our country!
Hunter River Community School is an amazing place to work and learn, a centre of excellence, and I believe a shining light in the domain of special education. The wonderful students that attend our school originate from six local government areas, and some young people travel significant distances to come to our school. The student population is diverse, and includes young people living on the autism spectrum, with complex health care needs, and rare genetic conditions.
Our teaching and learning programs are robust, rich, authentic, and highly differentiated to provide individual students access to high impact learning. Our work is underpinned by asking “why” and “how can we do that another way”. We are not afraid to admit that we need to do things differently, or to seek assistance from others.
One of the greatest things, as a leader, that I am proud of, is as a team, we embrace the messages that our students tell us. We do not question how they learn, but problem solve ways that we can support them to learn that way.
Our core business is to provide our students with a voice, and when we have been successful, the results have been incredible and life changing.
One of the communication support strategies we have embraced is Assisted Writing Communication (AWS). Through this technique, students have been able to reveal so much about what it is to live with autism. We have learnt that, in the words of our students, autism is like a wrapper that can be suffocating, however when a crack appears, the young person can let others into their amazing world. An example of the life changing power of Assisted Writing can be seen in the amazing work of two students, Charles and Koby.
Charles completed his typical pattern of Higher School Certificate last year, our very first student ever to sit a non -life skill HSC. Charles is currently non-speaking, lives with ASD Level 3, and lived in a world of frustration and silence.
After a personal challenge, he began to use AWC to communicate. What transpired was inspiring. It soon became apparent that beneath the physical façade, was a brilliant mind, a mind that, without specialised teaching, could easily complete Extension 2 maths equations, draft detailed stories and translate multiple languages. Via his trusted communication partner, he articulated his struggles with autism, his frustration at being treated as “stupid” and his dreams of going to University.
As a staff, we took a deep breath and then, without a roadmap, made his quest to sit the HSC happen. Remember, my staff are teachers in a SSP, with no formal training in high school subjects. As a Principal, I rang every person I could think to try and find a similar blueprint – in the end we made our own! Charles was awarded the Ministers Award for Excellence in Student Achievement in 2022. The first young person living with complex autism to be presented with such a prestigious award.
Charles is now studying Pure Mathematics at Newcastle University.
Koby’s dream is slightly different and focuses on writing a book about himself and autism. Once again Koby is currently non-speaking, lives with ASD Level 3, and does not engage in learning in a traditional manner. “Seeing Koby” is in draft form, and we will ensure it is published in some way before Koby completes Year 12 this year.
Every Principal should be extremely proud of their school and at HRCS, magic happens every day. I am extremely fortunate to lead a team who are resilient, determined and not afraid to challenge the norms. Our days can be extremely complex and challenging, yet every day staff strive to celebrate the smallest step of success.
My teachers, Student Learning Support Officers, Health, and Administration team, all go above and beyond, embrace change, and diligently strive to make attending HRCS as enjoyable as possible. There is no adjustment that is considered unreasonable, no learning opportunity that is considered too hard or no challenge that cannot be collaboratively faced. Yes, the solutions may not be always successful, but the commitment to try again and again is inspiring and does make a difference.
My executive team, led by John Winters, my Relieving Deputy Principal, are an amazing group of leaders who enthusiastically promote our school vision and continue to push the envelope when it comes to whole school initiatives. This year we have implemented an assessment driven literacy program that has revolutionised the way we explicitly teach literacy across the school. The results to date are incredible and clearly outline that every student has the capacity to learn complex information, when provided with communication access, belief and quality teaching and learning opportunities.
These successes are what keeps me motivated and what underpins my commitment to trying to change perceptions, knock down barriers and impart knowledge of those transformational teachers and leaders of the future.
I feel incredibly privileged to have the opportunity to facilitate and promote using a different lens to review the scope of teaching young people who are neurodivergent.
My career has sat within the framework of NSW Department of Education. A system, that whilst not perfect, has a strong commitment to providing an education for every student.
Over the past thirty-five years there have been lots of changes, and I firmly believe that, as a system, we are headed in the right direction in terms of providing quality education for young people who are neurodivergent.
There is still some way to go, but the vison is there, as is the recognition that an inclusive learning environment is a basic right for every student. I hope that the work being undertaken by my team, will assist in modelling the possible, and promote a reflection of current principles and practices.
Finally, the students who have passed through my classroom and who I have supported during their time at Hunter River Community School are the most amazing group of individuals. Despite their challenges, they promote kindness, acceptance, and resilience. Their journey may face many twists and turns, and they may come up against prejudice, bigotry, and ignorance, yet, alongside their families and friends, they remain positive, stand tall and live life to the fullest.
They are my inspiration, and they deserve every recognition and celebration. Together, anything is possible.