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Tuesday 16 September 2014

'Never give up on any student' – the motto that makes St Dominic's shine

Published 10/01/2013 | 06:00

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The all-girls secondary school has become a model of academic achievement, says Damian Corless

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Sr Liz Smyth, vice-principal of St Dominic's in Dublin's Ballyfermot, smiles indulgently when I query her figures. It's not the first time she's had to explain the remarkable stats coming out of the girls' secondary.

The figures are indeed remarkable. St Dominic's is a DEIS (Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools) scheme school in a disadvantaged area, and yet some 97-98pc of pupils are staying on to Leaving Cert. This knocks the socks off the national average of 87pc. In an area where traditionally very few ever went on to third level, the figure from St Dominic's is now an impressive 47pc.

Perhaps most remarkable of all is the school's claim that since 2005 it has kept on 100pc of pupils up to the sitting of their Junior Cert. It sounds too good to be true, I tell Sr Liz.

She cannot tell a lie. Last time out, she admits: "One pupil didn't complete the year." But it was only one, and any statistical margin of error will allow for that.

So, something very special has been going on in St Dominic's. That something special turns out to be a genuine Age of Enlightenment which began rolling almost two decades ago when the current principal (since 2000) Mary Daly brought a new mindset to bear on the school.

Sr Liz says: "People often ask how we retain so many students to Leaving Cert. They do say you couldn't possibly have that many!

"But in 1995 when Mary was year head and I was part of her team, we and the other teachers set out to change the educational inequalities of Ballyfermot. This was before initiatives like DEIS. And we worked very hard with that year group, forged close relations, pushed them and gave them extra study."

The new school motto became, and remains, 'Never give up on any student'.

And never giving up can involve really going that extra yard, as Mary Daly reveals: "Last year there were a couple not attending even in April and May, and people from here would find it difficult to get through to the granny or the mam. But I'd tell them we've got to keep trying.

"And I had those pupils' phone numbers and I'd ring them to wake them up in the morning. The success is getting them in the door, and ultimately to pass the Leaving."

Did she ever meet with a rude response?

"No, they'd be waiting for the call."

The approach has been a slow-burning success. St Dominic's now has seven past-pupils on staff, most of them teachers. They provide living proof of the value of sticking with education.

Mary says: "They're great role models for the young girls, and I would always say to them that when they're talking to the girls they should say where they've come from to where they are now. Even this morning we had a meeting with a third year and her parents, and her goal is to come back here as a teacher."

Sr Liz says: "Our first years now are unbelievable. I met one yesterday morning at 7.50 and I said, 'Oh, you're in early'. And she said, 'Yes, I've got extra Irish class'.

"So they're already thinking about the future and talking about what they want. There's a whole mentality change in this school.

"When I came here in 1995, and Mary in the 1970s, the goal was to get them to the Junior Cert. The really important change that we've made over the past 10 or 15 years is that it's about raising the bar for what the students can achieve.

"All teachers are setting targets for where they and the students are going, and it has really raised the morale not just of the students but of the staff as well."

Mary adds: "Certainly, the staff are now much more focused in raising the standards. I was talking to an inspector yesterday and she said I use your school as a model in how you have increased the number of students at Junior Cert level, because that's where you have to sow the seeds.

"I say that to the first years. I tell them we need to sow the seeds now. There's no point in talking about it when you're in fifth year. Sow the seeds now and reap the benefits when you're in senior cycle. That inspector was saying she's using us as a role model for all schools, not just Deis schools."

In addition to early-morning Irish classes, pupils are also turning up on Saturdays and school holidays for extra tuition.

Mary says: "We have excellent attendance. We also provide food and refreshments for them. Again it comes back to the staff because they're willing to do it for them. We've also introduced peer tuition, where fifth-years will help third-years, which is very effective. We've also started using fourth-years to help first-years. It benefits both."

If prickly issues arise between parents, teachers or pupils, the school operates a 'round table' mediation practice where each party can give their side of any particular story. St Dominic's has become so successful in involving parents, that their keen interest can sometimes create tensions (albeit of a welcome kind).

Sr Liz explains: "I've never met a parent who doesn't want their child to do well. They come in and ask questions. What are our teaching methodologies, what's being covered on the curriculum? They do come in and say I don't feel Miss So-and-so is covering that, and that is a great challenge for the management. But they're right!

"Perhaps a few years ago a teacher would respond by saying 'How dare she?!' That has all changed. Teachers will now come back and say 'This is what I am doing'."

Forging links to locally-based business has been a key part in St Dominic's strategy, with giants like Diageo and Grant Thornton coming on board.

Mary says: "We have a wonderful partnership with Allianz Worldwide Care in Park West. Their staff mentor our sixth years, looking at their career paths.

"They have their voluntary mentors for two years. If they want to follow a course in, say, law, the mentor will find out what courses are available.

"They have a lot of native Spanish and French speakers and from January they'll be providing language tuition. I could go on and on and on."

DEIS is Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, a Department of Education and Skills programme.

Irish Independent

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