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 steel-frame houses to open the school next to the existing primary school at Thornton.
Tradespeople have donated time to transform the houses 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,” Ms Cheney 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 donated the houses 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 given materials. He estimates the school is out of pocket $400,000 for a $1.8 million facility.
“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 had been on parents’ agenda for five years. She arrived at the school 16 months ago to find they’d already organised a fundraiser. They have collected more than $130,000 to bring their 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 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.”
The school will welcome 164 students this year, including 13 at the high school.