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Dundalk school is 'open to all' - Principal believes inclusion policy is key to integration

Last update - Thursday, July 2, 2009, 15:58 By Emilia Marchelewska

A primary school in Dundalk is bucking the trend of restrictive enrolment policies by opening its doors to immigrant pupils.

Of the 120 pupils at St Nicholas’ National School in Dundalk, 60 per cent are of foreign origin, coming from 40 countries including Nigeria, Croatia, Germany, Spain and Poland.
“We are very happy to have such a high percentage of non-Irish nationals here and are very proud of them,” says Evelyn McCullins, the school’s retiring principal. “Some schools don’t take immigrants. They don’t want to change, maybe. I think that’s morally wrong.”
Contrasting with the widely held presumption that high numbers of immigrant children in the classroom will decrease the quality of education, McCullins – a teacher for 43 years and whose own grandchildren are enrolled at her school – says: “We can’t see that. I think we can learn a lot from foreign nationals.”
Having such a broad base of immigrant pupils has led to some adjustments to the curriculum, she explains. “Eastern Europeans seem to be better at mathematics. Non-Irish [children] are generally very good at languages. A lot of Nigerians are better at speaking Irish than the Irish themselves.”
At the same time, she believes strongly in the importance for pupils to know their own heritage. “It’s important to recognise the cultures, flags and the language,” she says. “We encourage children to talk in their own languages,” she says.
In this way, adds McCullins, interaction between all the pupils makes for easier integration. “[The children] exchange stories and songs from their countries. We had an international food fair where all the children went and put up dishes. Games and music are good, too.”
In addition, the school puts an emphasis on drama. “Last year, at the end of the nativity play in the church some of the children wished the people ‘Merry Christmas’ in their own languages,” recalls McCullins. “They had a flag of their own country and before the play started there was a procession of flags.”
St Nicholas’ also puts much effort into teaching English, and McCullins finds the Government’s decision to axe the number of language support teachers “very unfair”.
She explains that language support enables the school to teach English intensively in small groups in order to make sure that when the pupils reach their final year they will have a good command of English to continue their education at secondary level.
The school also runs free English classes for adults as a means of improving communication with non-English-speaking parents.
“Sometimes an older child has more English so they interpret for the parents,” says McCullins. “We find that a great help. The interpreter would be a better solution but I’m afraid the Department of Education is not going to pay for interpreters.”
The principal says she would also like immigrant parents to integrate more, and suggests social evenings as a possible solution. “Maybe have different classes, like cookery and dance.”
But while progress might be slow now, McCullins thinks that ”in time” Irish society will reap the benefits of diversity.
“The younger people growing up now would have no problem, especially in schools like ours,” she says. “They take no notice of the colour of the skin; it makes no difference to them, they just make friends. When that generation grows up we should be fine.”

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