June Barrett has seen many changes in her two decades as principal of the School of the Holy Spirit.
And chatting in the light, bright, state-of-the-art facility that the school now calls home, she reflects on how it has grown and developed, as she prepares to retire at the end of this month.
It’s a far cry from the two-room space that made up the school when she started her time as principal there.
A native of County Clare, June says it was always her wish to work in education, and particularly with children with special needs.
After working in Cregg House in Sligo, St Clare’s School in Ennis and St Catherine’s School in Wicklow, she moved to Kilkenny with her husband Paul.
When she saw that a principal’s job was being advertised at the School of the Holy Spirit, she put her name forward, not expecting to be chosen. Yet last Friday she marked 20 years in the role.
Asked why she set out to work with children with special needs, she reflects: “I don’t know why. I suppose I’ve fallen in love with them, really.”
When she arrived to the school at Seville Lodge on the outskirts of Kilkenny 20 years ago, it occupied two rooms and catered for about a dozen students.
“It was a very modest situation,” she recalls of the school whose staff consisted of herself and one other teacher. “We didn’t have a phone, although we did have access to a phone.”
Over the years the numbers of pupils grew, the staff grew with the addition of current deputy principal Angela Lennon, and in 1993 they started to look for a new premises. “It was no longer suitable. It wasn’t big enough, the children were growing...” she says.
And so the school moved to the Gaol Road in 1994 into the office vacated by the Revenue Commissioners. With three renovated classrooms, she says, “we were very pleased, very happy, very excited.”
The premises was then extended to The Closh, but it wasn’t only the building that was changing.
“At that time we had more children coming to us who had received a diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder. We began to see that these children had very complex needs and they were going to need special training,” she recalls.
So the staff set about getting their own training as well, learning how best to cater for the students’ needs. For example, she says: “We started sensory integration programmes, because students with autism get very dereglulated. They don’t experience the world as we do, they experience it quite differently. It is quite frightening for them and they can be easily overpowered by sounds or smells or touch, so we learned about how they need to be regulated.”
And the growth didn’t stop there.
The school again started looking for a new location in 2000, and after “a very long road to get there,” opened in its new location at Seville Lodge in 2009, including a sensory garden donated by Stone Developments, which is part of the SISK Group. At present there are 75 students, up to age 18, from Kilkenny, Carlow, Waterford and Tipperary.
The purpose-built space fits in perfectly with the school’s ethos of looking out for the students’ particular needs, and June says what really makes a difference is the dedication of the staff.
“We are very fortunate that our staff have always stayed here – nobody has really moved on to anywhere else, so there is a huge wealth of experience in this school,” she says. “It’s one of the things I am passionate about, that you must have light and brightness and fun, and a bright spirit around people who have special needs, because they have an awful lot to cope with, and there is a lovely atmosphere in the school, a great spirit.”
This, she says, is one of the things the retiring principal is most proud of about the school.
“I think the training and level of expertise, I feel very proud of that and very safe with it,” she says, “and I am really proud of everyone who works here – they are a marvellous group of people – because you could have the best building in the world, but it would be nothing if you didn’t have the best people, and we have the best people.”
“We have wonderful parents, and the boards of management of the school have been exceptional. There has been a lot of work to get the school to this stage and we have had terrific chairpeople,” she says of Arthur Anglin, Brendan Conway, Diarmuid Healy, Betty Manning and now Tommy Lanigan.
The biggest challenge, she says, was trying to get the new school that they now have.
“It was huge, colossal challenge that went on all of those years,” she says, “and it was a great concern. The children were on a dangerous place on the side of the road, across from the fire station, with the worry a child could get out onto the street. It was an environment that wasn’t suitable.”
Looking towards the future, she says: “My biggest hope is that the education standard will not be in any way compromised by the education system. We have had excellent support to date from the NCSE (National Council for Special Education) and I am just hoping that it will develop,” including the school’s second-level programme.
For her personally, she says her plan is to take some time out for the moment. “There is a great richness in life in the School of the Holy Spirit and I think there will be a great sense of loss around that,” she says.
And in looking back at her time in the school, June reflects: “I would feel I was very blessed. It has been a tremendous honour to have been here and to have been involved with such wonderful people, and I really mean that from my heart – boards of management, staff, teachers, special needs assistants and the children and parents.”
“I can only describe it as a great richness. I have been very honoured to have had so many people in my life,” she says. “That’s how I will leave School the Holy Spirit, feeling I was superbly blessed.”