When the population of the northern suburbs exploded in the 1960s, Woonona High School sprung from the paddocks. KATE WALSH discovered the education on offer may be more sophisticated now but the school community is as close as ever.
Belinda Wall recalls a time when she was stunned by the sheer size of Woonona High School.
At the bottom of the food chain as a year 7 student, she remembers being intimidated by the bustle of older students on the first day she walked into the grounds, a world away from being top dog at primary school.
"I remember our primary teacher telling us that when we go across the road [to high school], we were going to be little fish in a big pond and that was a very apt description. It was exactly what it was like - we were minnows," Mrs Wall says.
"It was huge. When I arrived at Woonona High we went from [classes] 7A down to 7H, and in those days there was no transition program from primary to high school, so it was very different."
But it didn't take long to feel at home among the other teenagers. They all lived close by - generally in Woonona or Bellambi - and would run into each other at soccer or netball training in the afternoons or down the beach on the weekends.
"It was great because even though it was a school of well over 1000 kids, there were so many connections between the kids because we all lived locally. We all associated with one another outside of school," Mrs Wall recalls.
"All of the teachers were relatively young because it was a new school. We didn't yet have a school hall or covered walkways, just lots of steps, but it was all very exciting."
"There were these really strong connections, and I suppose that's why people have fond memories of their time here and friendships that have lasted over the years."
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the school, with celebrations planned for past and present students and teachers in August.
Leading the celebrations is Mrs Wall, now the principal of her alma mater.
It was built in 1964 on what was once a dairy farm. In a 1969 edition of Vista, the school's first official magazine, then English master Mr Robinson wrote that the school was meant to take some pressure off Bulli and Corrimal high schools as the population in the Illawarra's northern suburbs exploded.
Former teacher Gerry Doyle was there when the school began, when year 7 students (the only year group at the school) were split between Bulli and Corrimal while the finishing touches were put on new buildings at Woonona.
He taught at the school for close to 30 years, first as PE and sports master and later as an English and history teacher.
In the first years, he says the school had only four buildings - the administration office, a canteen, an industrial arts and music block and a science, social sciences and English block.
He remembers classes being taught on landings between the ground and first floors while construction was under way to accommodate the growing student body, and school dances held in adjacent classrooms before the hall was constructed.
Though Woonona High has been known for producing quality sports teams - a soccer side won the Tasman Cup in 1980 - students had little more than a concrete slab on which to hone their athletic abilities when the school first opened.
"We had a great big concrete slab with a wall, so all our activities were done there. We had no basketball rims, and for a long period we couldn't use the hockey or football ovals because they were being top dressed. So everything had to be done on the slab or inside the canteen for gymnastics and such," Mr Doyle recalls.
As the school grew with a new cohort of students added each year, Mr Doyle says the rapport between students and teachers started to take shape, creating a close-knit community.
"I suppose when the senior classes started to come, it wasn't until we had years 11 and 12 that there seemed to be a relaxation of the relationship and a rapport between the students and the teachers."
"I certainly felt that. It was great, and that was one of the big things about the school."
While 50 years is an impressive innings, Woonona isn't the only school celebrating a big anniversary this year.
According to Department of Education records, Warilla North Public School and Woonona East Public School also mark the same birthday this year, while Kiama and Lake Illawarra High Schools and Waniora and Russell Vale public schools are turning 60.
Towradgi Public School is also celebrating 60 years since its official opening although it started accepting students a year earlier.
A few schools in the region can also lay claim to surpassing their 100th anniversary years ago, including Fairy Meadow Public School and Wollongong Public School, while others will soon hit their centenary, including Stanwell Park Public and Wollongong High.
Much has changed in education over the past 50 years. Students must continue their education until they turn 17, technology is an integral part of the curriculum at all stages, corporal punishment is no longer acceptable and the number of courses available to students multiplied drastically.
The majority of school leavers go on to university, a stark contrast to when Mrs Wall graduated in 1978 as one of only two girls from her year heading to uni.
She remembers most students left after year 10 - the boys to pursue apprenticeships or begin work in the mines, the girls to train as nurses and bank workers or attend business college.
Alongside these higher-level changes to education over the decades, Woonona High's campus had expanded by the time Mrs Wall returned to the school, in 1991 as a teacher, then as principal in 2011.
The cricket nets and tennis courts were moved to allow the construction of the Northern Distributor, and the art rooms and library had also shifted position. It was unlikely, too, bands of the calibre of AC/DC or Ted Mulry would perform at the school like they did in the '70s.
The change in suburb demographics means the school is about half the size it was when Mrs Wall was a student, but she finds generations of families tend to pass through as people born and bred in Woonona choose to raise their children in the same area they grew up in.
"It's always interesting at presentation nights, particularly when I first started. People would do a double take when they saw me and I'd say: 'Yes, it is me, I have come back'. I know them from living in the community and invariably going to school with them or their brother or sister or aunt or uncle," she says.
She was pleased to find that what hadn't changed, though, was the sense of community she had felt as a student.
"The staff are an amazing group of dedicated, passionate teachers and even though we are going through change in terms of what the Department of Education is doing and the school's demographic is changing, that common thread of working together for the benefit of our students and community is very strong."
"People who are buying tickets [to the 50th anniversary celebrations], they're asking if particular teachers will be there because they have such great memories of them, and that's a great testament to relationships that were built back then."
It's a sentiment Mr Doyle agrees with. Though it has been two decades since he retired from the school, he says one of his greatest joys is being recognised by old students.
"The great thing is when the kids come up to you and want to shake your hand. Former students call you by your first name, which is what I wanted," he says.
"That's the biggest reward, when they want to talk to you after you've left school and they've left school too."
Woonona High is celebrating its 50th birthday with an open day on August 15, followed by dinner at Woonona Bulli RSL. On August 16, the school is holding a surfing competition at Woonona Beach, followed by breakfast at the surf club and a soccer match at Nicholson Park. Contact the school on 4284 1513 for details.
How schools have changed since the 1960s
- In 1969, primary school teachers looked after an average of 38 students each. Since 2007, the average primary class size is 24.6 students.
- High school staffing in 1969 was based on teachers looking after 40 students in years 7 to 9 and 25 in Year 12. In 1997, the last time that data on average high school class sizes was collected, teachers were responsible for 23 students.
- The six-year high school course was introduced in 1962. Forms one to four prepared students for the School Certificate, while forms five and six were for the HSC.
- School kids in the ’60s had a six-week break at Christmas, one week in autumn and two weeks in spring. Students now get five weeks over summer and two weeks each between terms one to four.
- Classes for children with specific learning disabilities were first introduced in 1968.
- The School Certificate was first held in 1965 and abolished in 2011.
Source: Government Schools of NSW from 1848, NSW Department of Education and Communities.