St Mary of the Angels

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With a rich, cultural history, St Mary of the Angels School has been an important part of the educational landscape in Guyra for one hundred years. Principal Sharon Wittig is justifiably proud of the school, its staff and students, and shares with us the special centenary celebrations planned for June 22nd and 23rd …

St Mary of the Angels school in Guyra was established in 1919. Could you briefly tell us a bit about the history of the school – and how/why it came to be?

St Mary of the Angels School was established by the Ursuline Sisters. They arrived in Guyra on a cold winter’s day in June 1919. The school building was not complete, so classes commenced in the little convent known as “The Retreat”.  The Parochial School building was completed late that year. We can find no clear record of how many students attended the school in those first years. 

In 1921, a small building was added to serve as a high school. It accepted both Catholic and non-Catholic students, and at the time was the only local venue in the area offering secondary schooling. It closed in 1958, when daily bus services allowed students to attend St Ursula’s or De La Salle College in Armidale. 

The primary school flourished, with the nuns contributing greatly to the community through support of music and the arts. The Ursuline sisters left Guyra in 1969 and were replaced by the Sisters of Mercy. After the withdrawal of the Mercy Sisters in 1979, the school was then associated with the Dominican Sisters, so St Mary of the Angels has a rich and varied Catholic history. 

Over time, many additions and modifications were made to the buildings, until plans began to build a new school designed to meet the needs of modern education. This beautiful new building was opened in 2009. Since then, our enrolments have continued to grow, and we have already had to convert our new library into a classroom. 

In this, our hundredth year, we are so proud to be continuing the legacy that was established by those brave nuns who first established Catholic education in Guyra. 

How long have you been the principal at the school … and where did you work/live prior to relocating to Guyra?

I have been in my current role as Principal since 2003. I did have the privilege of working at St Mary of the Angels when I was in my twenties. 

Anne Finlayson was the Principal at the time, and I learnt so much from her that has helped shape the way I go about my fulfilling my duties as a Principal. Anne is still an active member of our Catholic Education system and a parishioner, so I still have the joy of working with her in a different capacity. 

What are some of the changes/developments you’ve experienced at St Mary of the Angels during your time as principal?

The biggest development has obviously been overseeing the building of our new school. This was an enormous project, which required a lot of planning and confidence that a Catholic school in Guyra would continue to grow and thrive into the future. At the time, our total enrolment was around forty students. That confidence by the Catholic Schools Office and our Parish was well founded, as our current enrolment is over ninety students, and we expect this to push over the one hundred mark in 2020.

 Another huge change has been the continual increase in the use of technology over time. We have moved from simple computers to interactive promethean boards, chrome books and individual iPads. We are now experimenting with robots, coding and augmented reality. Our students were amazed when they could point their iPads at someone wearing a special T-shirt and see what was happing inside the human body. This is an unbelievable contrast to 1919, when slates and chalk were used for writing and maths. 

How many staff/students (and what grades) does the school currently support?

Today we have thirteen very dedicated staff members covering our five classes. We have 90 students from Kindergarten to
Year 6. 

We also have a brilliant Transition class that operates each Wednesday. This allows our littlest students to arrive on the first day of Kindergarten knowing all about the school, having solid foundations to begin learning and full of confidence, with friends from Kindy all the way to Year 6. 

What do you feel are some of the school’s greatest strengths?

People who visit our school often notice that there is something special about the way that people interact with each other. There is a warmth that is clearly visible. St Mary of the Angels School is all about relationships modelled on the Core Catholic Principles and Values, which are based on the dignity of the human person and respect and fidelity in relationships. 

These relationships are what make our school special. The care and consideration that our older students show for our younger children, and the love and dedication that the staff show towards all students, is one of the greatest strengths in our school. There is also a love of learning which radiates from our classrooms. It is a great place to come to work each day!

As a school in a smaller, more geographically isolated town, what are some of the challenges you face – and how do you overcome these?

Current educational data would clearly outline that rural and remote students are at a disadvantage compared with their city counterparts. We are constantly aware of this and work very hard to overcome these differences. We try to offer our students a wide range of extra-curricular activities. 

Our P & F is very active and often subsidise visiting workshops and performances that are not available in other schools. These cover content in literacy, science, geography and maths, as well as the usual creative arts performances. We are constantly updating our resources to provide the latest in technology. 

Our greatest resource is our staff; they are highly competent, professional people who are constantly participating in professional development to build their teaching skills. Our school invests in additional support staff in our classrooms, to make sure that our younger students build a strong foundation to support their future learning. 

Most of our families are closely tied to life on the land. With the ongoing drought we notice that our families are under pressure, and this is a considerable challenge that is unique to the country. As a school we try to be aware of the additional workload and pressure being faced by our farming parents and the flow on effect on their children. We just try hard to be aware and provide whatever support and care we can. 

June 22nd and 23rd marks the centenary of the school with some special celebrations. What activities are planned?

We have a weekend of exciting things planned. The celebrations kick off with the Centenary Dinner on the Saturday night, a chance for people to mingle over nibbles, drinks and a three course meal. There will be music for dancing and lots of time to talk. 

Sunday morning begins with Mass, a few formalities and morning tea. We are hoping to plant some trees to create a garden space to remember this special occasion. 

There will be viewing of memorabilia in our Parochial School Building, games from yesteryear and kite flying. Celebrations will finish with a BBQ lunch. 

What are some of the upcoming projects/activities planned for the rest of the school year?

A centenary is a very special landmark in the life of any school, and preparations are consuming a lot of our energy at the present. 

Early next term we have a full school audit, designed to ensure that we are compliant across all aspects of school management and student learning. That will keep us on our toes! 

We have some exciting events on the horizon, with visits by the UNE Voyager Science Team and a Gala Sports day coming up. 

We also have some students representing our school at inter-diocesan sporting events. We look forward to some great results from these students. 

Where can we find out more information about the school, or book for centenary celebrations?

Our fabulous school secretary is able to provide information about our school, or she can arrange an appointment with the Principal. She is also the friendly face who can help with all enquiries and booking of tickets for the Centenary. If you have not already booked your tickets, please get in contact and come along to make this celebration worthy of one hundred years of Catholic Education in Guyra.

Thanks Sharon.

Interview: Jo Robinson.

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