It’s just a normal day at Our Lady of La Vang special school in Flinders Park.
Principal Stephanie Grant is fielding phone calls – some of them from students wanting her to visit them – answering questions from staff and trying to find time to interact with as many of the 58 students in her care.
Outside in the spacious school grounds a dedicated team of teachers and support staff is helping students to enjoy the areas that have been specially designed to meet their sensory needs.
Inside the nine classrooms, a range of activities are underway – all designed to meet the capabilities of each student. And let’s not forget the carefree dance class underway in the music room.
The school is a hive of activity and for an outsider looking in, there appears to be a sense of shared happiness between all involved.
Opened in July 2013, Our Lady of La Vang at Flinders Park was built to meet the needs of students aged between five and 20, all of whom have an intellectual disability and many of whom have multiple disabilities and complex medical conditions.
Although relatively new, the school is steeped in both the Dominican and Josephite traditions, with a firm mission of providing specialist education based on ‘contemporary research and Catholic values’, duly reflecting the scripture of John 10:10, ‘I have come that you may have life and have it to the full’.
The school also has a strong commitment to ensuring each student can learn in a ‘safe, supportive and joyous’ learning environment.
When Stephanie took over from foundation principal Mary Jacquier in 2015, she was amazed by the talents of the students.
“The thing that absolutely blows you away when you start working here is how wonderful the children are and nothing can prepare you for that,” she said.
“It’s a privilege to get to know the children. You know them to different depths and what you see are very important little things, and then you begin to notice more about how these young people are developing.”
According to Stephanie, it is the “adaptability” of her 14 teachers and almost 35 support staff that makes it such a wonderful school.
“That’s what is brilliant about this place, being the right fit for the children. The challenge with some students is to adapt the environment to suit their special needs.
“The staff are highly committed to working here. They absolutely have deep relationships with these children and that underpins everything we do. The staff are open to trying new things and reflecting on the positivity of the child, rather than saying ‘we can’t do this, this isn’t working’.”
Of course, being purpose built to meet the needs of students means the school offers some state of the art features. These include the bus bay which helps to keep students safe, the ‘swipe’ security system and an underground water tank that enables the children to be involved in growing fruit and vegetables and learning about sustainability.
An initiative this year has been the establishment of East Bank Café which is run by some of the senior students. Once a week, with the support of their teacher, they plan the menu for the café, take orders from staff, go shopping to buy the ingredients required, prepare the food, deliver it and then invoice and collect the money from their ‘customers’.
“It’s a lovely innovation because it is purposeful for the students and they can see every step of the process,” Stephanie said.
This program has benefited from the school recently taking delivery of a new 12-seater bus, made possible in part through a substantial donation bequest through Catholic Charities. Smaller than the other three buses in the school’s fleet, this bus is easier to park in shopping centres and also more suitable for other excursions when only a few students need to be transported.
With the school now well established in the area, Stephanie said plans for the future include marketing Our Lady of La Vang further afield.
“We want to continue to support families in the Western suburbs and nurture our growing outreach, with four different pick up bus routes now going as far north as Paralowie and as far south as Christies Beach,” she said.
“Our core focus remains on a student-centred environment; one of learning and developing the curriculum around the growth of the child and sustaining a community that encourages every member to reach their full potential. Including our staff as they see the demands and opportunities the NDIS roll-out has on our families and we work to support and share this transition with them.”