The characteristics of the school principal are often aligned with recognised leadership qualities – the power broker, the visionary, the strategist; yet sometimes a principal’s greatest strength lies in their simple ability to connect with their people.
As teaching principal of a very small, high needs, low SES school for students with disability on the state’s North Coast, Bhavni Stewart, lives this approach daily; it’s part of her school’s success story.
Of the 29 students aged 4 to 18 years old at Biala Special School in Ballina, about 80 per cent are on the Autism Spectrum with moderate to severe intellectual and/or physical disabilities. Most students communicate non verbally. Each student has an Individual Plan and is provided with intense multidisciplinary support to meet their needs. The school is one of 30 NSW independent special schools supporting students with disability.
“We talk about Biala as an extension of the home environment. Because of the high support needs, we have to make sure the relationships with families are strong. We need to know what’s going on for the students emotionally, health and support wise,” Ms Stewart says.
Principal Bhavni Stewart (centre back) ... develops firm connections with the Biala Special School families.
The connections Ms Stewart makes start by developing close interactions with the families - mums, dads, siblings, grandparents and carers - the wider Biala Support Services, of which the school is a part. It then extends into the grassroots of the community – the services, charity groups, small businesses - anyone who can assist the school to provide the students with the best learning and life outcomes possible.
“My biggest push is that each of these students deserves the best education they can possibly be provided."
“My biggest push is that each of these students deserves the best education they can possibly be provided.
“Being in a small regional town, a lot of what I do is network, so I know all the different therapists. It’s an important part of my job because by guiding those networks and relationships with different services I know what will work best with some of our students,” Ms Stewart says.
Sourcing donations and coordinating fundraising for her dedicated staff to manage are also a huge component of her job because simple things such as gifts of second-hand school furniture and equipment help compensate for the school’s low fees.
“We do expect our parents to help with our fundraising, but the reality is that the majority are in grief and trauma. They’re exhausted and for us, it’s about supporting the families nearly as much as it is supporting the student.”
Principal Bhavni Stewart and students at Biala Special School in Ballina, Northern NSW.
Ms Stewart admits public relations, marketing and event management are not her “forte” but are necessary to keep the school operating.
“Our fundraising used to be as simple as pounding the streets – selling raffle tickets – and meat trays at the local pub. Now we hold two large events a year, a black-tie gala, and we also do a big walkathon. We try to host activities that are healthy and have a positive link to wellbeing.”
Despite Biala’s fundraising initiatives, Ms Stewart’s needs more funding to support smaller class sizes. It’s her one wish, she says. Currently, there is one teacher per nine students (three full-time teachers – one being herself, a teaching principal, and six part-time teacher’s aides).
“A lot of time for staff is taken up providing personal care needs and facilitating access to support services such as physiotherapy – purely taken up by an aid. So that leaves one teacher to take another group of eight students without additional support.
“We do a fantastic job in the circumstances but it’s never enough.”
School Improvement for Biala Special School is reaffirming that its learning strategies are on target.
AISNSW School Improvement
Ms Stewart says support from AISNSW’s School Improvement Service over the past year has been a strong validation that, while the school requires greater funding for students, its teaching and learning programs are on track.
“What I love about the school improvement process is it gives us the language and strategies so we can start to really pull together all of our best practice; to put it into something that’s definitive and concrete."
“As a small regional school, the relations we have with AISNSW and the support we get from every single consultant is so amazing and so prevalent to our success,” she says.
“What I love about the school improvement process is it gives us the language and strategies so we can start to really pull together all of our best practice; to put it into something that’s definitive and concrete.
“It’s allowed us to stop and break everything down and look at everything in context of what we’re already doing – recognising we’re doing it well and these are the reasons why. It has been a very affirmative experience. We are only going to keep building on it and getting better and better.”
If your school has preloved items or equipment that may be suitable for Biala Special School please contact the Principal Ms Bhavni Stewart.