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17 Bellingara Rd, Sylvania, NSW, 2224
By Phillip Charleston
The story of Sylvania High School is one of endurance, at times survival, but importantly one of success. It is the story of a small school seeking to make a name for itself in the competitive environment of education in the Sutherland Shire of Southern Sydney.
The school’s origins are humble, much like the suburb itself that was to become the gateway to the Shire. Over the decades, Sylvania has changed from a mostly rural area on the edge of the bush to prime real estate in Sydney’s property boom.
Residents born at the turn of the 20th Century remember Sylvania consisted mainly of poultry farms, one of which was located on the site of the school. Later the area became government owned land. The nearby Gwawley Creek was a site for tipping rubbish which turned the area into a swamp.
When the announcement came in the St George and Sutherland Shire Leader on Wednesday 19 April, 1961 that Sylvania would be getting a new high school, many believed it would be a struggle. It would have to compete against already established and respected government high schools, with several others also due to open throughout the 1960s. This first proposal did not come to fruition and the next time a high school at Sylvania was suggested was in 1968 in response to housing development plans in Jannali and Sylvania Waters. According to Mr C. G. Meckiff, the St George Area Director for Education, the school would: “relieve the accommodation strain” on already established high schools in the area, as well as provide a school for families living in the newly developed Sylvania Waters.
Building began in 1969 with the school being based on new design concepts tested in the country, making Sylvania the first school in this new style in the metropolitan area.
Work was finished by January 1970 and under the principalship of Mr Alan White, the school opened to students at the beginning of that school year.
Aerial photograph of Sylvania Waters during development in the 60s – Sylvania High would be this suburb’s local high school
Despite opening in 1970, the school’s facilities were not quite finished. Staff members from that time remember how the Administration, English, and Industrial Arts blocks were the only buildings completed. There was also a fourth block comprising the school hall and canteen. By 1974 the two Science blocks and Mathematics block were eventually added.
In these early years, Sylvania High was determined to establish itself as an attractive and comprehensive high school. It took until 1975 for the school to become fully populated, with all six year groups present. By 1976 the school population had skyrocketed to over 700 students, with the potential of holding 860.
To increase its profile in the Shire, the school consistently appeared in the Leader newspaper to update the community regarding projects, special events, musicals and sporting achievements. In 1982, the paper reported Sylvania High starting a Driver’s Education Program, becoming one of only two schools in the Shire that offered the course.
Sylvania High began its long association with supporting disabled students from its earliest years, donating money to the Caringbah Lions Club to support a disabled patron in 1982. The school has since installed raised walkways and a lift to allow disabled students to learn in a safe and accessible environment.
In the early days, Sylvania enjoyed considerable sporting success. Of note alumnus Socceroo’s and Sydney FC coach, Graham Arnold was a member of Sylvania High School’s football team that made it to a state final during the 1970s. The school also had success through a girl’s relay team in the CHS swimming carnivals, as well as in rugby league.
The school’s long standing success in the performing arts, began with the 1980s seeing Sylvania High contributing strongly to the now heavily established, Rock Eisteddfod, winning the competition in 1986. This was followed by an invitation to perform at the Schools Spectacular, a tradition that continues today.
The school’s first decade ended in controversy as a consequence of the publication in 1979 of the book Puberty Blues. The book scandalised many, but saw it defended by others. Written by a former student of the school, Kathy Lette, the book explored the adolescent beach culture of Cronulla and was said to be based on the author’s experiences at Sylvania High.
Despite this controversy, a precedent was set in these early years for academic excellence, which would continue through the years. In 1985, the principal, Mr Jim Lowe, experimented with an 11-period day. The results of this were seen in 1988 when the school received a special mention in the Good Weekend magazine for achieving great results in the HSC.
The decade began optimistically, with Sylvania celebrating its Silver Jubilee in 1994 with a 25th Anniversary Dinner. The school had also become more multicultural over the years, with 1994 seeing 25% of the school coming from non-English speaking backgrounds.
However, Sylvania faced what past teachers have referred to as the school’s most difficult period in its history. Despite statistics showing the student demographic within the local drawing area was remaining consistent, enrolments at the school by comparison were drastically low. There were several reasons for this.
The demographic around the school’s near vicinity was changing. The higher-income earners of Sylvania Waters were sending their children to private schools. Parents of Year 6 students from local primary schools were largely ignoring Sylvania as an option. Moreover, the other government high schools surrounding Sylvania were also feeling the pressure to remain competitive in the education market. Many saw Gymea Technology High School as providing the model which could attract more students – branding a high school with a special focus area. Another example from this time can be seen in Endeavour High School, which was rebranded as a sports high school in 1997.
For these reasons, Sylvania High was facing a population crisis. By 1997, enrolment was down to just 370. Numerous options to solve this problem were on the table, with the most popular being rebranding Sylvania High as a single-sex high school for girls. This proposal never left the planning stage. A rejection and subsequent pushback from parents left the school searching for other options.
One way in which this issue was addressed was by publicising Sylvania High school outside of its traditional drawing area. However, the school was relatively inaccessible by public transport. Through the efforts of the teachers and P&C a bus route was changed to run past the school, making it more accessible to the wider community outside Sylvania and the Shire.
Ms Dale Hawkins orchestrated receiving a number of students from Kogarah Intensive Language School to boost numbers. Specialist rooms for Drama, Dance and Music were added to increase the subjects offered and subsequently draw more students. Another group of teachers created orientation days, where Year 6 students would experience “a day in the life” of high school. The positive experiences they had encouraged parents to seriously consider Sylvania High as a good choice for their child.
Throughout these difficulties, Sylvania High’s emphasis on academic excellence never wavered. A study conducted in 1996 by the Carr state government designed to measure progress from Year 7 to 12, placed Sylvania High in the top 25 schools in the state and was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald (Monday, Nov. 25, 1996).
The new millennium has seen Sylvania High School firmly established as a centre of excellence for student learning and preparation for life. Despite the challenges of the past, Sylvania has recovered and thrived since its early, formative years.
Just four years after only having 370 students, in 2001, 124 Year 7 students reinvigorated the school community. Principal Mr Chris Byrne (1998-2006) triumphantly declared the crisis over by pointing to the rapid growth of the school to 650 students and this number has steadily continued to grow.
Since 2006 the leadership of principals Mrs Virginia Elliott (2006-2009) and Mr Craig Brown (2009 – present), has seen the school undergo remarkable, transformative building projects and upgrades to continue to provide a modern, attractive learning space that encourages academic excellence. Lobbying by the school resulted in a government grant to allow the construction of a new school auditorium in 2010. Since then, the school has upgraded Science labs, Hospitality and Food Technology kitchens, Industrial Arts workshops, Visual Arts facilities, basketball courts, the Administration block and toilets. The school has proactively embraced 21st Century learning with school-wide wireless Internet that allows students to bring their own devices and a myriad of digital technologies including projection devices in every learning space. The efforts of the school’s P&C in this process was also extremely important.
The school has continued to experience success in the areas of dance, drama and music, gaining the opportunity of performing on a world stage in 2000 where a group of dancers were able to take part in the Sydney Olympics opening ceremony. The school band has toured the Blue Mountains and Central Coast, with many performers achieving individual success in areas such as the Schools Spectacular.
Sylvania High continues to be active in the community, through volunteering, the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme, sports and debating. A highlight has been our school’s Mock Trial teams which consistently finish high on the rankings. In the past five years the teams have reached the quarter finals three times and placed third in the state against public, independent and Catholic schools.
Throughout its relatively short history, the school’s commitment to academic success has seen many students flourish as a consequence. Sylvania High School has proven it is an important contributor to the community and has been dedicated throughout its history to educating students.