Harassed commuters between Stillorgan and Carysfort Avenue, Blackrock (Co. Dublin), will have witnessed many physical changes to the landscape recently. Because of the rerouting of the road and housing developments on part of its campus, a school has now come after a half-century behind the high walls of a long-forgotten estate. What passers-by will not have witnessed are the progressive developments that have occurred within that educational centre—St Augustine’s School. Many new initiatives have been taken, in line with proposals set out in national policy documents and recommendations of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities.
Operating as a partnership between the Hospitaller Order of St John of God and the Department of Education, St Augustine’s is a coeducational school providing educational, vocational and recreational programmes for 160 students between 8 and18 years, students whose talents and strengths are not nurtured within the points-driven mainstream system. A residential service is also offered, with weekday boarding for up to 30 students.
Investing in early development
In line with best practice in reading development, quiet, comfortable spaces have been made in each classroom to encourage reading. Extra resources have been provided in equipment and up-to-date materials which will stimulate pupils’ interest. A peer reading partner scheme has also been developed. Not surprisingly, test results show a significant improvement in reading standards across the school. There is a fully equipped play and therapy room offering students the opportunity to develop play skills, and through play to learn appropriate social interaction. It is a welcoming environment for many group activities and for language development. It also provides an on-site facility for older students who study childcare to work with children in a supervised setting.
Discipline, or lack of it, is a common topic of conversation in the teaching profession today. A positive proactive approach has been taken at St Augustine’s, with the implementation of Discipline for Learning (DFL). This system sets clear expectations of good behaviour which is acknowledged and rewarded. Students keep a daily log, which is monitored by teachers and shared weekly with parents.
An Individual Education Plan (IEP) is now an integral part of the service. This is a written document, individual to each student, compiled in consultation with the student, her/his parents and all the staff involved with that student. It sets out goals to be worked towards, which include academic subjects, work experience, recreation, speech and language, vocational training and personal development. Strategies which identify how and with whom these goals are to be achieved are also documented. As a declaration of commitment, the final document is signed by all parties. Throughout the school there is an annual meeting to discuss and review each individual’s progress and goals. As well as teachers and instructors, input also comes from support staff in such areas as social work, psychology, speech and language, childcare etc.
So how does one acknowledge, and reward, students with special educational needs who have achieved the goals they have set themselves? How do you bridge the gap (perceived or real) between them and their mainstream peers? For the last two years now, St Augustine’s has been offering accreditation through the National Council for Vocational Awards (NCVA). The core modules of mathematics, English and personal effectiveness are offered, as well as a range of other modules, including child development, office procedures, light engineering, food and nutrition, and sport. NCVA is a nationally recognised system of portfolio-based qualifications, which is funded jointly by the Department of Education and the European Social Fund.
Additionally, for the past ten years St Augustine’s has had strong links with the UK awarding body, the National Proficiency Test Council (NPTC), through which modules are offered mainly in such practical skills as construction, car valeting, horticulture and information technology.
In 1997/98 new ground was broken when nine St Augustine’s students studied for, sat and achieved very high results in the Foundation Junior Certificate, in maths and English—the first group in the school’s history to sit a state exam. Following on this success, St Augustine’s has been deemed eligible to offer the Junior Cert Schools Programme, which encompasses core subjects as well as civics, history/geography and Irish.
Whatever the level or area of achievement, each student’s success is documented in a personal Record of Achievement—a portfolio which includes a CV, a school reference and copies of certificates and qualifications.
Skills for living
St Augustine’s School is not solely accreditation-driven. A holistic approach is taken toward students. A wide range of recreational activities—swimming, basketball, football, hiking, abseiling, orienteering, etc.—are a vital part of the school service. Personal/social development and independent living skills form a complete programme offered during students’ final two years.
Within the residential service, aspects of personal care, independent living and positive interaction are addressed, as well as participation in recreational activities. The presence of a chaplain on campus is a central part of St Augustine’s. She helps to develop and nurture the spiritual dimension of each student, and is an invaluable support in difficult times such as bereavement.
Into adult life
Since making their way in the world has become a stressful and pressurised experience for many eighteen-year-olds, a concerted effort is made to inform and guide students and their parents. This is done in many ways. A comprehensive work experience programme ensures that, from the age of fifteen, students are exposed to the real world of work in varied locations and settings. Through vocational skill-training, good work habits are promoted. Career guidance is an important part of the final-year programme for students, with talks and visits during the year and a Career Information Day to help students and their parents look at future options. The success of this strategy is evident in the fact that the fourteen 1998 graduates are all gainfully occupied in further training, supported employment or in open employment. The school has also made a commitment to provide a back-up service to its graduates for up to three years after they leave St Augustine’s, if they should require some further direction or guidance.
Wider community links
In terms of inclusion and integration there are also many initiatives. In 1997, the first-ever integrated summer camp took place, facilitated by childcare staff. Local children joined younger pupils at St Augustine’s in many and varied activities. It was such a success, and created so much interest, that it was impossible not to repeat the camp in 1998—for a greater number of applicants. St Augustine’s has developed links with two other local schools. There are regular student exchanges and a group of students are participating in the Leaving Certificate Applied Programme at one of those schools (Newpark Comprehensive).
While those harassed commuters may be standing still in the gridlock that is South Dublin, St Augustine’s moves on. Another initiative soon to be on-line is the establishment of an up-to-date computer facility, complete with Internet access, in conjunction with the Department of Education IT2000 Programme.
Alongside changing governments with differing policies and priorities in relation to education, a group of dedicated and visionary staff at this school are getting on with the job of helping some of the nation’s children to grow and develop. With supportive parents and motivated students, the full human potential of each individual is being realised. St Augustine’s students are being enabled to grow into responsible people who will take their place in life to the best of their ability.