With the open-arm acceptance of three children with Down syndrome into their 2022 Prep class, St Bernard State School on the beautiful Tambourine Mountain is living up to its motto of ‘We care and understand’.
Huxley, Celina and Lucinda, all living with a diagnosis of Down syndrome, started Prep this year at St Bernard’s State School, a small family-oriented community with 220 students. Principal Scott Johnstone and his staff embraced this opportunity to enrich and build an inclusive experience for not just Huxley, Celina and Lucinda, but all students and the wider school community. Scott believes that every child should have the opportunity to learn, stating that “inclusion for us isn’t anything different to what a normal classroom would look like”.
The process of enrolling a child into school can be daunting at the best of times, but for a family of a child with Down syndrome, it can be even more so. Speaking with Angie (Huxley’s mum), Linda (Celina’s mum) and Clare (Lucinda’s mum) certainly gives an insight into the lengthy, complex and at times emotional process of preparing children with Down syndrome for school, and indeed, life.
When Clare started approaching schools for Lucinda 18 months ago, there was an assumption that Clare should ‘know the system’ after having already been through the enrolment process with two older children. But that couldn’t have been further from reality, with Lucinda being Clare’s first child with Down syndrome, needing additional adjustments and resources.
These families relied on the support and advocacy offered by Down Syndrome Queensland, the staff of whom were meticulous and compassionate in guiding them through school legislation and policy, encompassing school orientations and transitions. Clare recalls, “Down Syndrome Queensland don’t hold any assumptions and they’re very aware and in tune with their members and constituents… they care and they know what we need!”, stating that DSQ were a massive source of guidance when considering school for Lucinda.
Down Syndrome Queensland’s Education Support Service worked alongside St Bernard’s Inclusion Teacher, Mrs Kershaw, to assist in the children’s seamless inclusion into the state school system. Despite a disruptive start to the year with Covid-19 delays and an extreme weather event, Huxley, Celina and Lucinda have settled into school life extremely well, proving themselves to be excited and willing to learn.
The children’s teacher, Mrs Berryman, has noted how well the students interact with their peers. “It’s nice to witness them develop friendships and become more and more part of the group”, she says, adding “they often show a lovely compassion and sympathy to other students”.
Indicative of the entire school’s ethos, teachers are learning Key Sign to ensure effective two-way communication with the school community. The school also initiated Key Sign to be taught to incoming Year 6 children who ‘buddy up’ with the Prep students. Key Sign is embedded into elements of the school curriculum, including music in the younger years.
Instigated by a sticky note being handed out in the waiting room of a GP’s office nearly four years ago, the families of these three children have a special bond. Meeting regularly to have some fun, the parents and children alike are always keen to support and encourage one another.
The three powerhouse mums have decided to raise money for specific resources needed for their children’s schooling. For instance, Huxley, Celina and Lucinda all have hearing challenges so an inclusive speaker system was purchased which benefitted all students in the classroom. With finite resources available from the Department of Education and the $2,200 cost of this speaker system left in their laps, Angie set up a GoFundMe page, which the women shared with friends and family.
An incredible $5,294.65 was raised and presented to St Bernard’s to be used for the speakers and any other resources required by the school.
In recognition of World Down Syndrome Day on the 21st March, St Bernard’s held a version of ‘Lots of Socks Day’ with students and staff showing off some brightly coloured socks. All proceeds raised went directly to Down Syndrome Queensland.
With a sense of pride and enormous relief, all three women agree they can’t speak highly enough of Down Syndrome Queensland and St Bernard’s, and it’s any wonder. St Bernard’s State School has a reputation of being ‘the kind school’. The size of the community, its philosophy, and its culture made the decision of where to send their children very easy. And from the beginning of their journeys, Down Syndrome Queensland have shown unfailing support for both the families and the school.
St Bernard’s is believed to be the first school in Australia to welcome three children with Down syndrome into one classroom. Down Syndrome Queensland advocate for the most inclusive learning environment for a student with Down syndrome and recognize the importance of inclusion requiring a whole school approach.
With the help of Down Syndrome Queensland Education Services and a forward-thinking, supportive community, a new generation of school children are experiencing the true value of inclusion. What a wonderful future for society as a whole.