Both schools were established decades ago by the Sisters of St Joseph who long dreamed of them being expanded to offer Years 7 to 12. St Mary’s principal Larry Keating said that in previous years the long commute from Lake Macquarie to St Francis Xavier's College, Hamilton, added significant pressure to students’ schooling.
“The tyranny of distance meant after Year 10 concluded we were losing kids to state schools who didn’t want to travel,” he said. “Now students don’t suffer the disadvantage in the learning process of having to change schools and start all over again. Maintaining continuity means the teachers already know the specific support kids need.”
Despite the obvious advantage of studying closer to home, the decision hasn’t been easy for the first class of students offered the choice to stay or go. St Mary’s Year 12 leadership group member Georgia Hayes said she originally moved to St Francis Xavier's at the start of Year 11 but changed her mind and moved back to St Mary’s. “Going to SFX was just the done thing so I went without giving it much thought – I only lasted three weeks,” she said. “St Mary’s was my home and I was happy to come back home.”
Her friend and fellow Year 12 leader, Sooay Smith, said it was a particularly hard decision after all of her friends chose SFX. “I stayed and became close with people I wouldn’t normally have spent time with. It is much easier than driving all the way into town,” she said. St Joseph’s Lochinvar students used to attend All Saints’ College Maitland for their final two years of schooling but are now free to finish where they started.
Principal Patricia Hales said there had been great excitement among the first cohort of Year 12 students as the HSC drew closer. “This group is forging a new identity for the college and the school has focused on providing support and encouragement without placing too much pressure on them,” Ms Hales said.
Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle Acting Director of Schools Gerard Mowbray said the expansion was started following an extensive study in 2014-2015 into the future provision of secondary education in the Diocese. “Students, staff and parents requested that the continuity of schooling from Years 7 to 12 in these regional centres be considered,” Mr Mowbray said.
“Parents and carers have shown their great support for the structural change by seeking attendance at the schools in ever-increasing numbers. The local demand cannot in fact be met.”
At St Mary’s, the wait list to join Year 7 was 50 this year and 70 last year. St Mary’s students also benefit from a decision by the school to cap enrolments at six streams, which equates to 180 students per year in Years 7 to 10 and will eventually result in about 150 in Years 11 and 12. “You can become too big and then you lose the capacity to care for kids,” Mr Keating said.
Understandably, St Mary’s first-ever graduating Year 12 class is only small, but the 43 students soon to make history are relishing the extra support and attention.
Year 12 school leaders Coen Harvey and Cohan Geelan said class numbers were very small so it felt more like having a personal mentor than a normal teacher who was trying to assist a large number of students at once. “Being the first Year 11 and 12 class we’ve really been eased into our senior years. The teachers always remind us it’s not the end of the world if you don’t get the ATAR you want,” Coen said.
“There’s a great sense of pride in being the first year to do all these things at the school. It’s a unique and special experience,” Cohan said.