CONSTRUCTION has started on the $13 million second stage of St Mary's Catholic College at Gateshead's five-stage redevelopment, which has been designed to accommodate increasing demand from families in a "university campus" style environment.
Principal Larry Keating said he had "no doubt whatsoever" the transformative project was the biggest in terms of scope and cost St Mary's had seen since it opened as a girls school in 1964.
It will lift the capacity from 800 to 1100 students.
"This is the greatest redevelopment in the history of the school and has deepened and reinvigorated my personal love of learning," Mr Keating said.
"The Sisters of St Joseph set up the school and to build on their work has been an absolute gift.
"We want contemporary learning spaces that support the needs of students in terms of who they are and where they are at in their life journey in a seriously complex world.
"The demands on young adults are far greater than any generation before them.
"They're going to be looking at multiple careers and have to be prepared for that.
"We need to build that self efficacy and self belief they can survive no matter what when they go out into the real world."
St Mary's welcomed boys in 1983 and expanded in 2018 to year 11 students, who will sit the HSC this year.
Work on the $7.8 million stage one commenced in 2017, finished mid last year and was funded by the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle's Catholic Schools Office and the Diocesan School Building Fund.
It involved refurbishing and extending one of the original buildings to include a hospitality precinct (with a gallery, senior student cafe, a cafeteria to replace the canteen and a hospitality kitchen); a STEM precinct (with a maker space, woodwork room and construction room) plus new bathrooms.
Stage two will cost around $13 million and will add an arts precinct (a new art room, refurbished art room and two new computer labs), four general purpose learning areas to the above-mentioned building and additional carpark spaces.
It will also see the complete demolition of the administration building facing the Pacific Highway.
This will be replaced by a two storey building that extends closer towards the highway and has staff space and a learning support centre on the ground floor and administration on the top floor.
It will be completed by February next year.
Stage three will see the existing southern wing of classrooms refurbished and extended.
Stage four will involve the staff space and library being converted to a glass-walled learning centre with a senior student lounge at the rear.
Stage five will be a new college hall built between the existing covered outdoor learning area and music suites and the oval.
Students are being taught during the construction in a "village" of nine air-conditioned demountables.
Mr Keating said the works complemented a steady increase in demand for the school, despite its location in what he said was a demographic with a declining school-aged population.
The school has grown by 100 students both this year and last year coming from as far as Doyalson.
The wait list to join year seven was 50 this year and 70 last year.
Its Catholic feeder schools are relatively small, meaning 45 per cent of students are from the state system.
Mr Keating said while the size of the first year 12 cohort had been modest - 44 of the 133 year 10 students from 2017 stayed at St Mary's for their HSC - they have access to 34 subjects.
"We started by offering 50 or 60 subjects, it was driven by student choice - they defined the curriculum," he said.
"We had to offer a curriculum that could compare with any other school of comparable or greater size.
"There would be 19 or 20 subjects in year 12 where the class size is between 9 and 10."
There are 86 students in year 11 and he expected senior grades to grow to 150 pupils each.
He has employed 21 additional teachers this year, including 19 in new roles.
ST MARY'S STUDENTS A PART OF HISTORY
ST Mary's students who will be the school's first in more than 50 years to sit the Higher School Certificate say they are glad they "swam against the tide" and are part of the history-making cohort.
Year 12 leaders Georgia Hayes, Molly Gould, Sooay Smith and Cohan Geelan said their decision to stay at the school for its expansion past year 10 to senior grades - when the majority of their peers left - has paid off, with smaller classes, teacher mentors, a closer-knit grade and the chance to reap the benefits of the redevelopment, including a cafe for senior students.
"It was perceived that staying here was the easy path, but people who stayed swam against the tide," Georgia said.
"I went to another school but the teachers didn't know me from day to day and I chose to come back here."
Molly said it was "one of the hardest decisions I've had to make in my life...now I don't have the words to explain how happy I am I stayed".
Sooay said they now had a responsibility to show "how to be a good leader and how to express school spirit".