Mainstream school or special school? Well, how about both ...

New era for unique school for unique students

When BJ Kew finishes Year 12 at the end of 2021, he will say goodbye to a school that he has been part of for 15 years.

All the staff know him and most of the students know him as well. His faced is splashed all over the school’s website and newsletters.

“Gaps can often get wider as students get older.” – Dianne Dowson

BJ was three years old when he first began in the pre-school program at Pacific Hills Christian School, in the vast green suburb of Dural in Sydney’s north-west.

He enjoyed school and made friends easily. But by the time he reached Year 5, BJ needed extra support – both in terms of his schoolwork and in the additional challenges he faced in everyday life.

You see, BJ has Down Syndrome. Fortunately, at just the right time in his school life, a new school opened on the Pacific Hills campus – New Hope School, specifically designed for students with moderate intellectual delay, or who have an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

In 2015, when New Hope School first started with seven students, BJ was among them, as he entered sixth grade.

“Gaps can often get wider as students get older, and BJ was getting to the point where he needed that extra level of support going forward,” says director of New Hope School Dianne Dowson. “But it was also important that he maintained friendships with the students that he grew up with, and that has happened. Particularly in those first few years, he maintained strong relationships with the students at Pacific Hills, who still do care for him.

She adds: “He’s such a part of the school community, so it’ll be sad to see him go.”

Two schools – one community

“Two schools – one community” – that’s the way Pacific Hills describes the unique connection between its mainstream school and New Hope.

New Hope students join in assemblies, some mainstream classes and other activities with Pacific Hills students – some even go on Pacific Hills school camps. There’s further opportunities for mingling as New Hope students perform work experience in the school library. And some Pacific Hills students like to pop down to New Hope at morning tea and lunch time, “just because they want to support our students,” says Dowson.

“There’s a lot of understanding and desire from the [Pacific Hills] students, not just staff, to support the New Hope students,” she says.

Beyond Pacific Hills and across the education sector, debate continues about whether students with additional needs are better off being included into mainstream schools or sent to special-purposes schools.

Around 90 per cent of students with a disability in Australia attend mainstream schools. While the push towards integration into mainstream schools is strong, some families – and some schools themselves – feel these schools are not adequately equipped to accomodate the individual needs of particular students.

Dowson believes New Hope students have the best of both worlds.

“I will argue the point that although we are a separate school, we are inclusive. We are following an inclusive model because we’re providing an opportunity for students to receive schooling and the support that they need alongside a mainstream school, with the strong connections that we have with Pacific Hills.”

Dr Edwin Boyce and Dianne Dowson

Principal of The Pacific Group of Schools Ted Boyce and director of New Hope School Dianne Dowson

The integration of students with additional needs into mainstream schooling has always been the aim of Pacific Hills, since it first began in 1979 as Pennant Hills Christian School (it was renamed in 1986).

“The founders of the school, John and Robin Odell, had a son Jonathan who became disadvantaged intellectually after an error by an anaesthetist during an operation he had,” explains Dr Ted Boyce, executive principal of the seven schools (including New Hope) which are now part of The Pacific Group of Schools.

Boyce continues: “And so they looked for a school where he could go. Sadly, Jonathan never was able to come here because, by the time the school was [founded], he was too old to be a participant. However, the whole aim was to integrate students into normal learning situations and social settings at school.”

Boyce notes that then – and still today – around five per cent of the students at Pacific Hills Christian School itself have a mild intellectual delay.

However, Dr Tina Lamont – who first headed the special needs program at the school (and is now assistant principal at Pacific Hills) – saw the need for additional specialised schooling for students with higher support needs.

“The goal is to increase our students’ independence, as we’re preparing them for daily life and life after school.” – Dianne Dowson

So alongside New Hope, another two schools were established in The Pacific Group of Schools for children with moderate intellectual delay or an Autism Spectrum Disorder (categories which enable the schools to receive some government funding). These schools are Pacific Hope School in Tweed Heads, northern NSW, which also started six years ago and now has 60 students; and Valley Hope School in Maclean, in the NSW Northern Rivers region, which began in 2017 and has around 22 students.

There are also plans for another school for students with moderate intellectual delay or an Autism Spectrum Disorder at Muswellbrook, in the upper Hunter region of NSW, where there is already a member school – Pacific Brook Christian School.

While these schools still teach traditional curriculum including maths, English and science, the method of delivery is different in order to cater to the needs of students. For example, a maths lessons can be based on money-handling skills. Students are also given individual education plans, developed in consultation with parents or caregivers, which extend beyond academic goals to personal goals such as communication, social skills and behaviour. Speech and occupational therapy are provided at school, as well as specialised music lessons. Life skills such as self care, cooking, gardening and laundry are also an important part of schooling for these students, as well as work experience.

“The goal is to increase our students’ independence, as we’re preparing them for daily life and life after school,” Dowson explains. “So during their year 11 and 12, particularly, we’re looking at various connections with post-school organisations.

“We’ve had our students go to an organisation at Parramatta [in western Sydney] called Avenue, which caters for young people with a disability going into work.”

New Hope student Xavier at work experience in Pacific Hills school library

New Hope student Xavier at work experience in Pacific Hills school library

Noting the importance of work experience for New Hope students, she continues: “We’re providing them opportunities here on site [at Pacific Hills]. So we have students who do work experience in our cafe, at the library, alongside our maintenance staff and PE staff.”

Alongside work experience, the students also take part in “community participation” lessons. “Our Year 12 students are doing some travel training at the moment. So they’re going off-site and learning how to navigate the whole transport system, in addition to shopping skills and money skills.”

Dowson notes the emphasis the school places on parent involvement and consultation about their child’s education.

“We have regular meetings with parents and have really encouraged strong communication between parents and ourselves …”

“God gave the children to the parents first. Especially when students first arrive at New Hope School, the parents are going to know their child much better than us, so they are an amazing resource for us to understand their child and help us to support them.”

However, in return, the school provides support to parents, especially as they consider their child’s future.

“We’re planning information sessions for parents to support them as they’re trying to navigate the National Disability Insurance Scheme and what options are available for their children once they leave school,” says Dowson.

“Our parents are nervous and they need as much support and guidance as we can offer them.”

A season of growth

This year the vision for New Hope School is not only coming to fruition, but expanding to a season of major growth.

Construction is now underway for an impressive new campus on 2.5 hectares next to Pacific Hills school.

“Ever since New Hope School commenced in 2015 we knew that the current buildings would not be our permanent home,” says Dowson.

“We’ll still be part of the school site and part of the whole school community, which is really important, but it will be nice to have more space and the same quality [of buildings and facilities].”

While New Hope’s current facilities consist of a few demountable buildings near the school oval to temporarily accomodate its 24 students, the new facilities with eight new buildings will eventually be able to cater for up to 72 students. The development – worth more than $12 million – will be completed in four stages, with the first stage (and the move to the new premises) to be completed in 2022.

“The facilities will really honour the students.” – Dianne Dowson

The design is based on research into spaces for children with additional needs. Cottage-style buildings aim to make the school like a “village community” in order to help students “feel at home and have a sense of peace”.

The facilities are also designed to meet the unique curriculum at New Hope.

“The facilities will really honour the students,” says Dowson. “We do just fine in our current facilities, but things like withdrawal spaces and toilets adjacent to classrooms, therapy rooms and spaces, a special nurses’ station, all those things will just support them even better than we’re doing at the moment.”

Future stages will also include a sensory room, technology rooms and a library.

New Hope students engage in a practical maths lesson

New Hope students engage in a practical maths lesson

At the moment New Hope caters for students in Years 3 to 12 in multi-age classes, which, according to Dowson are “grouped according to age, but also according to need and how best to we can support those students”.

However, the school is currently applying to also teach Years 1 and 2, which it hopes to be able to do from 2022.

New Hope School is, in some respects, still finding its feet, having just celebrated its sixth birthday – and still waiting to move into its permanent home. However, the school’s 42-year-old vision is still as clear as ever.

“We have a philosophical predilection to having students inclusively in a general setting because they’re part of a family,” concludes Boyce.

“I believe everybody’s equal in value and worth. The more gifted student is no more valuable than the student with a learning disability.

“We think all children have special needs, including the highly gifted, the same as all adults do. We are all created in God’s image and Christ died for everyone one of us. These are the essential reasons why we do what we do.”