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Boarding school – a principal’s perspective

Schools

STEVE BYRNE is principal of Sacred Heart College, a co-educational day and boarding school for students from Years 7-12 on two campuses at Mitchell Park and Somerton Park. He describes the enjoyment and rewards of running a boarding school, as well as outlining some of the challenges.

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Steve Byrne

Having been a principal for a dozen years in two fine schools I was looking for my next vocational challenge back in 2012 when I was appointed to the then Sacred Heart College Senior, a Marist co-educational campus of more than 1000 Year 10-12 students with a boarding house of 120 boys and girls. Never having been involved in a boarding school, I looked forward to this new challenge.

I recall my predecessor Dr Paul Hine telling me, ‘you’ll enjoy the boarders’. He was right! Some seven years later I am still enjoying the boarders, the challenges and triumphs, but it has been a journey.

Raising our three children was challenging enough let alone being in loco parentis for 120 boarding students from across South Australia, Broken Hill and further afield. Predominantly the students are in Years 10-12 but with our recent amalgamation with Marymount College we have a growing number of younger boarders across our two campuses: Champagnat which is Years 7-9 and Marcellin, Years 10-12. As a Marist college our ‘Family Spirit’ is one of the foundation stones of the ‘Hearts’ community and the boarding house is an integral component of this.

The key to a vibrant and flourishing boarding community is quite obvious – mutually respectful relationships across the boarding family and a philosophy which puts the boarders at the centre.

By this I mean that planning, refurbishments, initiatives, support structures and services, leadership programs and so on are built on a rationale which enables the boarding students to grow and develop from young girls and boys into fine young women and men. It is critical that learning is the core business and a key focus of attention from enrolment to graduation.

Setting clear expectations in regard to a commitment to study, with the assurance of support when needed, helps create the necessary learning culture. Having former students and boarders as tutors whilst they study at university has proven to be very beneficial to our students due to the closeness of age and the fact that these tutors know and have lived the Hearts culture. By no means is this unique to Sacred Heart but the impact of youth to youth ministry should not be underestimated.

As a Marist college we operate day to day in a particular way and report on the boarding students’ progress against the key characteristics of Marist education: presence, simplicity, family spirit, love of work and in the way of Mary. Implicit in each of these characteristics is the aim to nurture wholesome relationships with others by developing a strong sense of personal identity. This commences with induction, is modelled and reinforced by the boarding staff and explicitly expressed to the families. Our Boarding Parents Committee works in collaboration with the director of boarding and the principal. This partnership has initiated a number of well-received improvements around the boarding experience at Sacred Heart. By working together, we are again modelling good habits for the young people and learning from each other.

Of course, there are numerous challenges faced by all who work with adolescents and boarding students experience many of these. Notably, in recent years mental health has been an area of growing concern. Ensuring that the boarding house is a safe and nurturing environment is paramount to dealing with any of the usual challenges including: social media, alcohol and illicit substances, home sickness, family turmoil or illness, the impact of nature on the regional and remote families and so on. At times, parents are unhappy and aggrieved and it is really important to have good processes in place to deal with these. These processes need to be built on the relationships which should be in place prior to such things occurring.

In recent years we have initiated an Indigenous boarding program working in partnership with the Smith Family’s Indigenous Youth Leadership Program (IYLP). This has added another important dimension to the boarding community and whilst only comprising 10 per cent of the students, there has been a great deal of learning in working towards reconciliation for our Indigenous sisters and brothers by ensuring Sacred Heart is a welcoming place for all.

I am enjoying the boarders and continue to learn much along the journey. It is a privilege and significant responsibility to be entrusted with boarders and it helps develop a special bond with the boarding staff as well. It is also incredibly rewarding to delight in the growth and achievements of the boarders as they journey from school life to young adult life, mindful of the influence their boarding days at Sacred Heart has had on them and many others over the past century and a bit.

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