Thursday, April 04, 2019

Hidden gem deserves more exposure

The St Joseph's NS staff: Frances Clare, Leanne Toft, Eimear O'Brien, Margaret Egan, Alison Finn, Carmel Brown, David Dempsey, and Cheryl Garrett.
"We have a hidden gem here, maybe too well hidden," says David Dempsey, Principal of St Joseph's National School in Halverstown, outside Kilcullen. "Sometimes people forget we're here, and that's my biggest challenge."

Though he's only a year leading the school, David Dempsey has fallen completely in love with it, writes Brian Byrne. And as it celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, he's very hopeful that it will still be thriving in the decades to come.

With two more pupils enrolled at St Joseph's recent Open Evening, the school will have 73 pupils at least when the new year begins next September. And that's 73 pupils who are quite likely to be among the happiest of their peers anywhere in the county.

There are three modern classrooms and six teachers, and despite its small size St Joseph's has all the resources required to provide for the needs of the pupils, many of whom are third generation from the local families who got the school in place six decades ago. Recently, many of those original pupils were back for the annual Grandparents Day. Apart from their own memories, such occasions are a sense of pride for the visitors, as they see the very modern and colourful place that their little country school has become.

"It's really nice to have that that kind of continuity," David Dempsey says. "We have a much wider base in our current pupil group than the original mainly farming families, but there are still a number who might be a little late at this time of the year because of lambing and other farming needs."

Having come from a much larger school before taking up his appointment at St Joseph's, the closeness of the school community in Halverstown is part of what David Dempsey really appreciates. "It took me a while, but like all the other teachers here, I now know not just all the names, but who has which pet, what each child's interests are, and whatever is going on in their lives. It's really good to have that relationship and attention."

Apart from the curriculum, mental health is a key priority for David Dempsey and his team. Mindfulness is part of every day, and he sees it as one of the advantages of a small school that this is achievable. "I'm not knocking the big schools, but there is something special in a place like this. It's a different kind of upbringing."

A small school can make children very independent, with older ones looking out for the younger in a very close way. David cites how it is the children who are often the first responders if there is an incident like a fall. "Also, if a younger child might be chattering at Assembly, it will be an older one who tugs at their sleeve and quietly tells them how they should behave."

For visitors, it is clear that the children at St Joseph's are a very happy bunch, proud of the red school uniforms, always ready to show what they're doing, whether it be a science experiment or art work. On that latter, one pupil's response to a call for a logo for the 60th anniversary is now being used throughout the school.

"I just gave them the brief, that the Vikings had come to Old Kilcullen, that there is the round tower, and that I wanted something with the school crest. She came up with a drawing that just blew me away."

Children's happiness is critical to a successful school, the Principal believes. "I've always said it, if the child is happy, the learning looks after itself. And whoever is here in coming years, I hope that will be how the school continues to be operated."

For the 60th anniversary, a number of particular events are scheduled. There was a very successful combined Kilcullen 700/St Joseph's 60th Anniversary Run on Sunday 24 March. A 'Back in Time Day' is planned for June, when all the modern digital equipment like interactive whiteboards will be switched off. "We'll go back to blackboards and chalk, and the old Irish books and 'Rivers of Ireland'. And everyone will bring in a sod of turf for a symbolic fire, to recall how the the school was kept heated 60 years ago."

There's also a Reunion Day in planning, and through the rest of the school year a number of former pupils are being asked to come in and talk about their own times at St Joseph's. "Maybe to talk about what it was like then, to hop over the fence and go home through the fields."

In the meantime, those fields are still there, and are their own contribution to a patently happy school. "If you're looking out at fields and beautiful blossoms and mountains, it just has to do your heart good. Every morning when I drive across here and maybe see the sun rising over the hills, it does it for me every time."

This article was first published on the Kilcullen Page of the Kildare Nationalist.

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