Principal’s goodbye – for now


St Joseph’s school principal Phil O’Connell-Cooper is leaving her familiar stomping ground for the second time.

But instead of saying goodbye to the inkwells, blackboards and nuns she learned with as a child, O’Connell-Cooper farewells the interactive whiteboards and bank of computers she introduced at Queenstown’s Catholic primary school.

O’Connell-Cooper will leave at the end of the school year to take up the top job at St Joseph’s in Takapuna, Auckland.

She’ll be taking charge of a primary school more than double the size of the Queenstown school – her new roll will be 380 pupils, compared with a capped 160 here.

It’s time for a change and a new challenge, says O’Connell-Cooper, whose claim to fame is being the first baby born at Queenstown’s old mater­­­­nity hospital.

She attended high school at St Dominic’s College in Dunedin and spent most of her working life away before returning in 2002.

Principal at Queenstown’s St Joseph’s for six years, she’s seen an influx of overseas children – from the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Brazil and Europe.

She’s also helped instigate changes in teaching meth­ods: “I think the emphasis is on ensuring that teaching is very specific and children are well aware of what it is they’re learning and why. I don’t take full credit for that – it’s a team effort.”

She’s helped boost computer numbers from 15 to 60 screens – “I consider computers essential tools for learning as opposed to a luxury” – and every classroom will also have an interactive whiteboard by the end of the year.

It’s a big change from 1950s education, as O’Connell-Cooper keeps reminding her students.

“Sometimes I think they look at me as if I’ve got sev­­eral heads, you know – ‘what are you talking about?’. It’s all very ancient.”

A huge challenge St Joseph’s Queenstown faces is the planned campus expansion to Speargrass Flat which, if consent is granted, will allow the school to expand its roll to 240.

O’Connell-Cooper’s de­­­parture now leaves two big gaps in the local Catholic community – a permanent priest to replace Father Martin Flannery still hasn’t been found.

She says she’ll take away many memories from her time as principal in Queenstown.

“The things that make me happiest at the school are the happiness of the children and the staff – everybody’s prepared to work together and focus on learning and supporting each other when things are going wrong.”