THE Hunter’s first autism-specific high school is preparing to welcome its foundation students on February 1, but needs community support for its three-week sprint to the finish line.
Principal Lara Cheney said the Aspect Hunter School had been given four pre-fabricated buildings to establish a high school next to the existing primary school at Thornton.
Tradespeople have been donating their time to transform the buildings into six classrooms and an administration building with a staff room, reading room, computer laboratory and kitchen, but she said the school was hopeful of recruiting additional professional painters and carpenters to donate a few hours.
“We’re so lucky and grateful to be able to draw on community support,” she said.
“We receive government funding for teaching costs but the set-up costs are all private. It’s going to be an exciting and busy month but we’re looking forward to welcoming our new students. We’re hoping to have four of the six classrooms ready for the first day.”
Ms Cheney said the high school would “never have happened” without property developer Hilton Grugeon, who helped arrange the donation of the buildings from Morpeth Gardens and put the word out to tradespeople and suppliers.
Mr Grugeon, whose son has Aspergers syndrome, said painters, carpenters, electricians and plumbers had donated labour and suppliers had helped with materials.
He estimated the community input as equal to more than $1 million. “I help because I can,” he said.
“If you can help and you don’t, it’s wrong. We’ve got a such a sense of community here in the lower Hunter.”
Ms Cheney said the idea for a high school had been on primary school parents’ agendas for about five years.
She arrived 16 months ago to find they’d already organised a fundraiser.
They’ve collected more than $130,000 to bring the vision to life.
“They were concerned about wanting more options for high school and wanting to continue their education with Aspect,” she said.
“The aim is to transition students to less specialist settings, but that is not always possible. At primary school there is one teacher and one classroom. But at high school there are up to seven teachers, they have to get themselves around school, it’s very different.
“It requires so much energy to keep it all together so they aren’t learning at their best, they’re quite stressed and overwhelmed. We engage the strengths, interests and aspirations of students to help them reach their full potential.
“We’ll deliver the mainstream high school curriculum and also teach skills for lifelong benefit and connection to their local community, so they can create independent lives past school and aren’t reliant on their parents.”
The school began in 1977 and operated in leased and unused Department of Education buildings.
It was scheduled to move from Shortland to Thornton in 2010 but the arrangement fell through.
Former Paterson MP Bob Baldwin contacted Mr Grugeon, who told Richard Owens, who donated the land.
Mr Grugeon led a campaign to build the school on the site and it opened in 2011. It also has satellite classes in Cardiff, Waratah West, Tarro, Abermain and Port Macquarie.
It will welcome 164 students this year, including 13 at high school.