Is this Ireland's best school?

 

Coláiste Chiaráin in Croom, Co Limerick, was on the backfoot a decade ago – now it is the fastest-growing school in the State. Where did it all go right?

IT WAS 1999, and Noel Malone had just been appointed principal of the local vocational school in Croom, Co Limerick. With only 86 students on its books and just six enrolled for first-year that September, parents had already spoken with their feet. Morale among teachers and students was at rock bottom.

“It was an extraordinary position to be put in,” Malone says. “I suppose in a sense, things were so bad, they could only improve. I later found out that it was last-chance saloon for the school.”

Fast forward to 2011 and Coláiste Chiaráin, as the school is now known, is thriving with more than 900 students. It has won awards for its use of technology and it encourages students to study a wide range of subjects while providing them with opportunities in the arts, media and sports. It’s an incredible turnaround. In just over a decade, Coláiste Chiaráin has come back from the brink to become one of the fastest-growing schools in the country.

“I don’t know was it naivety – I was only 34 or 35 – but I really believed we could do it,” Malone says. “I wrote a list of the things that I thought would make the best school for the new millennium . . . We put up inspirational pictures. I used to go around to the classrooms and tell the kids how this school could be the best school in Ireland.”

SMALL BEGINNINGS

The small stuff came first. “We painted the whole school – all the classrooms in different colours. We cleaned up any graffiti – in fact we’ve had very little graffiti in the years since because I believe that if you keep a school well, the kids respond to it.”

The most obvious sign of its rapid growth is the maze of 57 prefabs that stand behind the original school building to cope with the overflow. The process is underway for a new school building but for now, despite the structural shortcomings, Malone and his staff have ensured that when it comes to technological infrastructure, Coláiste Chiaráin is top notch.

Gerard O’Sullivan is deputy principal in the school. He, like many of his colleagues on the school’s unusually young staff, has experience of a working life outside of teaching, having worked in industry for a number of years.

He and Malone are like a double act when talking about the school and how it uses technology. “We have industry standard infrastructure,” O’Sullivan says. “We can adapt quickly because we have been dealing with this technology for more than 10 years now”

THE LAPTOP INITIATIVE

Every student has a laptop or a netbook. The netbooks provided to the school are fully rubberised to protect them from knocks and they are covered by an excellent warranty.

This year’s first-year students were provided with e-books under the school’s book rental scheme. Normally students pay €100 to rent a set of books each year. This year the first-years paid the same amount for their e-books.

In 1999, all of this was a mere twinkle in Malone’s eye, but the seeds were there. The VEC was supportive of his ideas and the staff members were willing to try anything.

Malone had seen the benefits of technology in education abroad. “We decided that we should work towards the idea of a laptop initiative here. It was a very small school so it was doable you know?”

With the help of some sponsorship, the 32 first-years who enrolled in year two of Malone’s tenure, each received a laptop which they could bring home. The school was fully rewired and, bit by bit, more students were incorporated into the programme.

That second year was a big one for the school: a name change – from St Mary’s Community College to Coláiste Chiaráin – and the introduction of a new uniform.

TRANSPORT

There was still a major obstacle. Croom had been bypassed and Bus Éireann had slashed its service to two buses a day. Numbers in the school had declined so dramatically that the free transport entitlement was withdrawn. Even if they wanted to attend, there was no way for students to get to school. There was only one thing for it.

“We bought our first bus and started bussing people in ourselves,” Malone says. “Now we have three and a fleet of 12 that we’ve subcontracted out. We provided our own infrastructure because no-one else would provide it for us.”

THE TURNAROUND

The laptop initiative was a huge success in the following years. Malone was the first non-US recipient of the Dell Technology Award for Excellence in Education in 2004.

Now the school gets a good deal for netbooks and servicing from Dell but that’s as far as it goes. The idea was always to make the scheme sustainable rather than to be dependent on sponsorship. Most students buy the Dell netbooks while others buy laptops. Some bring in their own laptops and the school services them and provides them with the necessary software.

A full-time systems administrator works for the school, funded by a once-off payment of €200 in first year.

“I’d hate to think that we’re just known for technology though,” Malone says. The school has made a huge effort to ensure the broadest possible curriculum is available to students and subjects on offer include the more marginal applied maths, engineering and agricultural science.

There is a huge emphasis on languages, offering a choice of four – French, German, Spanish or Italian – and Junior Cert students are required to take two. Business is another Junior Cert core subject.

The arts are important and the school musical is an annual highlight. A range of sports, traditional and otherwise, are also on offer. The school even has a rowing club, a particular interest of Malone’s. There’s a television station, ClickClick TV, which has its own Youtube channel, a student council, a science club, a green club and so-on.

Efforts have been made to ensure there are strong systems and policies in place. The school is particularly proud of its anti-bullying policy. If there is an incident, established protocols and systems kick into gear.

“I’m a big believer in dispersed leadership,” says Malone. “The teachers in the school are willing to take on responsibilities and we have a great system of deans and assistant deans. I rarely have to deal with anything like bullying anymore because it’s all dealt with on ground level. It is important to us that everyone feels welcome. It honestly doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from. We welcome all comers – something that other schools don’t necessarily do.”

INTO THE FUTURE

Malone and his staff have built a successful, vibrant school from one that was on the brink of closure. “I used go around to primary schools and some of them would sort of say, ‘Oh well, nobody from here goes to that school’,” says Malone.

“But then the following year they’d let me leave in a brochure, the year after, I was asked to come in. It’s sort of sad to say, but once I started getting the middle classes to accept the school, that’s when I knew we were going to be successful. Success breeds success.” They won’t be sitting back and enjoying it though. It’s onwards and upwards as far as Malone is concerned. “Numbers-wise, we’re where we want to be, but we seem to have a new project under way each year,” he says.

“I expect that will always be the way it is.”

The Intelligent School

The 10 years of experience that Coláiste Chiaráin has with technology in education shows. It’s very well integrated into the everyday life of the school.

Teachers in Coláiste Chiaráin have been creating and sharing notes, videos and other resources online for years. Each subject has a web presence so that students can access homework and other resources wherever they are, as well as being able to collaborate on projects and presentations online in real time. Sites such as Youtube and Google Maps are used in conjunction with textbooks and e-books to enhance learning.

On a practical level, attendance is monitored electronically. Students are assessed by academic performance, homework, behaviour and so-on as part of their individual targeted learning strategies. Because this is done at regular intervals and because it’s computerised, the year heads and their assistants can monitor students’ progress with ease. Even voting for the student council was electronic.

Student clubs all have websites, maintained and managed by students. The school has a prominent online presence, using Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Flickr as a matter of course.

Twitter, and particularly Facebook, are handy for announcements such as closures related to bad weather, Youtube is the realm of the school television station ClickClick TV, while Flickr provides a massive display opportunity for photographs of debs, sports and other events.

“The students are so tuned in though,” O’Sullivan says. “We announced snow closures one Wednesday on Facebook. Within minutes we had something like 450 views and then of course the questions started rolling in: ‘Does that mean we have Friday off too?’ They are always 10 steps ahead.”