VMCH specialist school, St Paul’s College, celebrates 60 years of teaching this year.
It is a celebration close to the hearts of Peter Walsh and Bill Jolley. They both attended the school when it first opened its doors on February 12, 1957.
When they talk about the school, they remember wonderful teachers, the goodwill and generous community support that helped the school become a reality and its dedicated founding principal, Brother Patrick O’Neill.
Brother O’Neill lost his sight in his 40s. What he found was a mission to help others with vision impairment.
He was providing religious education to Catholic children at the Royal Institute for the Blind when Archbishop of Melbourne, Dr Daniel Mannix, asked him to find a way to do more for vision-impaired children in Victoria.
He accomplished this by rallying community support to open St Paul’s School for the Blind, in Fernhurst Grove, Kew.
The school is now called St Paul’s College. It provides education and support to children with a range of disabilities. The school has about 60 students, employs 25 teachers and teachers’ assistants. It has allied health staff, a speech therapist, occupational therapist and physiotherapist.
While a lot has changed over the years, many things remain the same. Things like wonderful community support, dedicated teachers and innovative programs.
Peter, who was eight when he started at St Paul’s, can recall Brother O’Neill’s words to students on the first day of school.
“He told us that we as blind people, we will be able to achieve what we want to. We should aim for the best in life and do the best we can,” he recalls.
“It was amazing what those teachers and Brother O’Neill did. They always aimed for the highest and the best. How lucky were we.”
Bill says community support helped the school thrive in the early years.
“There were no government grants. It was all the community and we owe so much to that philosophy of the community and self-help,” he said.
“It is why, I think, a number of us have been active in our global community. That help that we received is something that we pass on to people that are less fortunate than us when the time comes and we are able to provide support in turn.”
Bill and Peter both went onto study at mainstream high schools and at university. They also continued their contact with the school as Villa Maria board members.
Bill was the first blind person in Australia to gain an honours degree in mathematics. He is well-known for his advocacy work. He was a pioneer of computerised braille production in Australia, and led the advocacy work for the installation of audible traffic signals.
Peter studied social work at the University of Melbourne. His career included helping resettle migrants and refugees and he worked for the Department of Housing.
Sheilah Blanchfield was also at St Paul’s from the day it opened in 1957. She was five-years-old and says it as an exciting time.
“Everything was new. It was all very exciting,” she says.
“The camaraderie of the staff in the early days, everybody really wanted it to work and there probably was very little money.”
She remembers Br O’Neill encouraged students to aim high.
“He thought that our goal in life should be the same as anyone else’s.
“I think he wanted us to have the best education we could and to grow up to make good decisions… to be happy with whatever we did with our lives.”
As times changed, the school responded and in the late 1970s, it expanded to teach children with other disabilities.
Today, it continues to be innovative with projects like the dual-school and bridging programs. These programs give students experience in mainstream school settings for part of the week. They attend our specialist school the other days and benefit from smaller class sizes and teachers with specialist skills.