Monday 23 October 2017

School salutes past as it pens new history

At Mount Carmel Secondary School, the proportion of students going on to college has doubled in a decade

Progress: Chloe Brennan, Leah Conroy and Loise Igboanugo in the new garden at Mount Carmel. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Progress: Chloe Brennan, Leah Conroy and Loise Igboanugo in the new garden at Mount Carmel. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Aisling Incze and Patricia Chitic in the school library. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

Opening of new extension to one of Dublin's oldest schools. Building to be named in honour of 1916 heroine, teacher and trade unionist.

On Tuesday 2nd May, Mount Carmel Secondary School, King's Inns Street, Dublin 1 will officially open its new 5 classroom extension.

Mount Carmel Secondary School in Dublin's north inner city is in celebratory mood this week with the opening of an extension, honouring an inspirational former teacher, Margaret Skinnider.

She taught there between 1928 and 1961, having survived the hostilities of Easter Week 1916, when she took on the role of sniper, and was the only roman wounded in action.

Áras Skinnider adds four classrooms and a new music room, as well as a landscaped garden that brings welcome colour and a relaxation space to its grey, city environs.

Not only the name, but the spirit of Margaret Skinnider is living on in King's Inn Street, as Mount Carmel writes a new narrative, chapter by chapter, of how a school is raising ambitions and results.

Enrolments are at their highest in 25 years and, at 376, up about 50pc since the current principal Gerry Cullen (right) took over 11 years ago. But it isn't only enrolments that are rising; on every educational performance indicator the school is on an upward trajectory.

Mount Carmel is a participant in the Department of Education's DEIS scheme for designated disadvantaged schools. DEIS schools have lower than average achievement levels and the scheme offers supports, such as additional teachers, to help close the gap. It also requires concerted efforts on the part of the school and sustained attention to the detail of various components that, when worked together, make a difference, such as setting targets for literacy, numeracy and educational attainment, and keeping a watchful eye on progress.

In the past decade, the school has seen a doubling, from 30pc to 60pc, in the number of students progressing to third level.Of last year's 48 Leaving Cert candidates, six went to Trinity College Dublin, and others are studying in University College Dublin, Dublin City University, Maynooth University, Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) and various other institutes of technology, on courses ranging from pharmaceutical science, nursing and human genetics to international development, culinary arts, business, accounting and finance, primary teaching, arts, law and music.

Research throws up disturbing insights into the school experience of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, sometimes told by teachers that third-level study "isn't for you". These are the very students who rely on schools to break an inter-generational cycle of cultural and educational disadvantage. Even with the additional supports, no more than 20pc-30pc of pupils in DEIS schools may progress to third-level.

The jump in Mount Carmel's college progression rates hasn't happened by chance. One of the mantras of DEIS is attendance, retention, progression, the third step very much reliant on the first two. The school's retention rate of 92pc-96pc (the proportion of pupils who started in first year still there to sit the Leaving Cert) is on a par with the national average, and well ahead of the DEIS 82pc average.

Cullen, whose previous role as a home school liaison officer gave him a keen awareness of the challenges faced by disadvantaged families, says management and teachers have high expectations for student attainment: "When you higher the expectations, the kids rise to the challenge."

At Mount Carmel, it would be hard for pupils to avoid the clear message that third-level is very much for them.

Guidance counselling is at the core of what the school does. When the cuts to guidance provision were introduced in 2012, Mount Carmel protected the service.

According to Cullen, as well as initiatives such as careers' week, "there are conversations around going to college by all teachers, in all classes. Every teacher is constantly promoting third level. Every student in the school this year, from first year up, has visited a third-level institution."

Cullen says that as part of their DEIS plan, "since 2009 we actively set out to increase the number of students sitting higher level subjects. This doubled at Junior Cert level from 2009 to 2011 and, in five subjects, more than 50pc of students are now sitting higher level papers."

There is a similar story in Leaving Cert classes, with increases in the numbers sitting "honours" papers in nine of the 13 Leaving Cert subjects offered. Uptake of higher level papers increased by 33pc between 2010 and 2014.

Mount Carmel used to share a higher level maths class with a nearby school, but now has a full 'honours' class of its own, while, in the sciences, chemistry has joined biology as an option. Strong links with nearby DIT, Bolton Street, sees the latter's engineering students provide one-to-one maths support to Mount Carmel pupils every Wednesday.

Some 38pc of current pupils were born outside Ireland, but everyone studies Irish. unless they arrived here after the age of 11 and choose not to do so.

The most recent initiative is the Mount Carmel Academic All-Stars, a mentoring programme that pairs-up high-achieving senior pupils with high achieving junior pupils.

Encouragement to students to aim high is all around: the CAO points system is displayed in every classroom, from first year through to sixth year.

Exam results are analysed in detail, to see what's working and where there is room for improvement.

Beyond the academic side, both students and teachers enjoy yoga classes, while other activities include basketball, soccer, creative writing and the school musical.

But according to Cullen, the school library and full-time librarian, funded by the Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP), which works to counter early school leaving, "is probably one of the greatest initiatives that has been introduced to our school". The library is open before, during and after school and he says it is always a hive of activity, proudly boasting that librarian, Mairéad Duggan has been short-listed for the 2017 Librarian of the Year.

Irish Independent

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