July 2011

Mater Dei: a privileged place to work

“It’s a privileged place to work; it’s as simple as that,” says Tony Fitzgerald, the Principal and CEO of Mater Dei School in Camden, New South Wales.

BY Stephanie Thomas

In 2009, after 25 years at St Gregory’s College, Campbelltown, the last five as Deputy Headmaster, Tony Fitzgerald began to consider the possibility of other leadership positions. When Tony first saw the ad for the principal’s position at Mater Dei School in Camden, he didn’t give it much thought. But then he received two phone calls from friends strongly encouraging him to apply.

For the next few weeks Tony spent time in serious thought. Once he made the decision to apply, he stopped looking for other positions. “There was nothing else I wanted to do,” he explains.

It’s 18 months since Tony started as the Principal and CEO of Mater Dei School and it is quite clear he has no regrets. “It’s a privileged place to work; it’s as simple as that,” he says.

“It teaches you more about yourself. It teaches you about life, it teaches you about life’s priorities, it teaches you about hardship, and it teaches you about joy as well.”

Based in the Macarthur region of NSW, Mater Dei was established as a special school by the Good Samaritan Sisters in 1957. Now the school provides early intervention therapy services, and education and residential programs for babies, children and young people with an intellectual disability or developmental delay.

The school program, the largest part of the Mater Dei operation, supports about 140 students from Kindergarten to Year 12 who have been assessed with a mild to moderate cognitive disability as their main disability. But according to Tony, many students would nearly always have associated disabilities.

At Mater Dei, the primary school program is based on the NSW Board of Studies Syllabus, while secondary students participate in a life skills program. By the end of Year 10 and Year 12, the students receive either a School Certificate (Life Skills) or a Higher School Certificate (Life Skills).

Despite a growing need in the community, Tony says there are very few schools like Mater Dei, especially ones that cater for K-12 students. Over the past 10 to 15 years, there has been a trend to include students with a disability in mainstream schools. However, Tony believes there is evidence to suggest the pendulum might be swinging back a little because of an increasing diagnosis of disability.

He explains: “The demand for places in mainstream schools for children with disabilities, particularly autism, has increased, and as that has increased [schools have] been able to take fewer students who have more significant needs. And so there becomes a greater need for schools like Mater Dei”.

To support this claim, Tony refers to the most recent enrolment process at Mater Dei where he received 38 or 39 applications for only 10 positions. “Most of the 38 or 39 who applied would be legitimate applications for a school like Mater Dei. It’s traumatic because where do they go?”

Tony believes the offer of enrolment at a place like Mater Dei is “like gold”. “It’s the best time of life… for the children and their families because they are in a secure environment where they are loved and cared for and nurtured, but also taught.”

Such is the allure of Mater Dei that many families are prepared to relocate to the Camden area to secure a place for their child at the school. “They’d pick up everything; they’d move the family, the job, the house if they were offered a place at Mater Dei,” says Tony.

One of the most significant differences between Tony’s experience at mainstream schools and Mater Dei is the level of community support. “It is an absolute blessing,” he says.

“There’s great affection and a high degree of ownership of Mater Dei in the community, not only the local community and the local Catholic community, but in particular the Good Sam community.”

Tony is relatively new to the Good Samaritan Sisters but it hasn’t taken him long to feel at home with their spirituality.

“If you asked me to choose a word to describe the experience of working with the Good Sams in the Benedictine tradition, I’d say ‘authentic’. The gap between the spirituality and the lifestyle is narrow.

“I just find them inspiring women because they are women of conviction, integrity, intelligence, but with an extraordinary capacity for hospitality that is inclusive and nurturing. I felt that from almost the minute that I was appointed.”

For Tony, a challenging aspect of his work at Mater Dei is the extent to which he responds to the individual needs of 140 children and their families.

“If I don’t take the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of these children and families who does?” he asks.

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