Head of the Class – Park NS.

Published – East Cork Journal – Thursday, April 10 2008.

Interview with Principal Niamh O’Connor.

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This week I visited Park National School and talked to Principal Niamh O’Connor. I had no idea what to expect from the school as I had never heard of it before. After taking the many winding roads and hills and stopping to ask for directions I finally found the place.

The building is really small and resembles an old school house. When I went inside I noticed that there were only two classrooms. That is when I knew that this was unlike the other schools I had visited. The Principal Niamh O’Connor greeted me and explained that there were just two teachers in the small two room school. She sent her class into the other teacher when I arrived and when they were leaving I noticed that it was a very small class. Later I learned that there are just 17 kids in this school.

So the school is small and a lot different to the busy town schools I have already been to but that doesn’t mean that it is forgotten about. Talking to Niamh I learnt of all the different activities that the kids were involved in. Like the kids in bigger schools they learn French and science and do sports and play music.

The school was first opened in 1951 as a one teacher school. It has now grown and has two teachers including Principal Niamh O’Connor and Edel Ahern. Emer Power also works in the school as a part time learning support teacher. Niamh started teaching at the school six years ago when Jane Flannery Principal of Castlemartyr National School was Principal. Niamh was offered the position as Principal when Jane Flannery left and considers herself “fortunate to have been given the opportunity because it is a lovely school.” She said that when she started teaching she liked the fact that the school is in a tight knit community and that the parents are so involved.

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Like I have already said there are just 17 pupils. They come mainly from the Park area but some also travel from Youghal town and from as far away as Cappoquin.

A fully revised curriculum is taught in the school. PE, Science, French and computers are also taught. There are 9 computers in the school so the student computer ratio is very high. Niamh O’Connor says that

“the kids are very computer literate and power point presentations are the norm.”

The older children present projects that they have done to the younger children. This year the teaching focus was on France and the school held a French Day. The older children showed presentations that they had made and all the kids dressed up for Mardi Gras. This all tied in with the fact that the children from 3rd to 6th class study French so it was an extra benefit to them.

Last year the school won the Health Promotion School Award which was presented to them by Minister Michael Ahern. This award means that the children are conscious of their eating habits. The school has a policy on healthy eating guidelines and is also involved in the Food Dudes Campaign. The kids are also involved in recycling. Everything in the school is recycled. There is no domestic waste, the school composts as much as possible. Everything is either recycled or sent home with the kids. There is also a school garden which Niamh is very proud of. Yesterday the kids spent the evening planting flowers for the summer.

The school also received the Discovery Science of Excellence Award last year. This consisted of a series of experiments being taught to the children from 1st class to 6th class. Every week for the entire year the kids did different experiments and the teachers set up a portfolio to record this. The program was set to develop creativity and to show the children that science is part of every day life.

Niamh talked about the student teacher ratio. She said that because there is such a low ratio that it benefits the kids. She said that

“if you have a child that needs that little bit extra help because they are in a multi-grade system that you are constantly repeating so it benefits them.”

Niamh also talked about how it would benefit kids who liked to be challenged. They are also at an advantage as they can listen to the higher class. She said that “the children here are living proof that multi-grade teaching works.”

Aisling Butler comes into the school every Tuesday to teach the tin whistle. Edel Ahern also teaches music to the kids. Music is played every morning with the keyboard or a flute or tin whistle. At the moment the school is working on purchasing a new keyboard and some recorders.

Because the school is so small all the parents have a really positive impact on the school. This year the school are focusing on building a new store room and the fundraising relies on the parents and children in the area. There was a fundraiser in the Halfway Bar and it was a great success. There was music and food and the parents really got involved.

The school also holds a Christmas concert each year and the school neighbours and parents always attend. It is usually a musical and because the school is so small every child has the chance to play a lead role. This gives them great experience for public speaking later in life.

Last year the kids were involved in painting the shed outside with Philipa Healy. Each child in the school took part in painting the mural. This was an opportunity for all the kids to work together in a project that benefited the school.

While there are no sports teams in the school because of the limited numbers PE is still a huge part of the school. The kids celebrate Active School Week every year. During this week the children are taken for 15 minutes to do sports as a whole school. This reminds them how important physical activity is.

Children are also involved in shared reading throughout the year where the older children listen to the younger children and vice versa. The kids recently celebrated this through World Book Day where the day was spent focusing on books, doing drama and talking about favourite authors.

Future plans for the school include working on becoming a green school. Because the school already promotes health and the environment and recycling it is a link on to this. The kids and teachers are working on this and hopefully it shouldn’t be too long before they receive their green flag.

Last year the school underwent a whole school evaluation in the report the Cigire reported

“The parents, the board and the pupils can be assured that the quality of teaching in this school is of a high standard.”

After visiting the school I think that it is a good description of the school, the children and the teachers.

Leaving the school I felt like I was leaving a big family home. Although I was shocked that a school so small could actually exist I learnt that just because it is small it does not mean the kids are at any disadvantage. They learn the same subjects and get involved in the same programs as kids in bigger schools and I felt that they were actually at an advantage because there was so many activities that the kids could work on together.

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