It is with genuine sadness and shock and with a sense of apprehension that the pupils, families and staff of Cranmore Integrated Primary School started school this year. Mrs Helen Hamilton their visionary, founding Principal has just retired after twenty years in her position. Her dedication to integration is unquestionable and her drive is exhausting. The children are at the centre of everything she does, she will stop at nothing to get what they need, to ensure they fill their potential and succeed.
School will go on without her but her charisma and infectious personality will be difficult to emulate. Mrs H creates a ‘buzz’ everywhere she goes. The children love to chat to her and readily open up about even the most difficult topics. Through her day interactions with pupils, parents and staff, she shows wit and humour like no other.
Helen took a very big risk in 1993, when she gave up a permanent post to become the first principal of a school:
- whose building did not exist
- which had no pupils enrolled
- had neither staff nor finances
- and had not Department of Education approval until August 1993.
Only the vision, selflessness and determination that she shared with the group of eight founding parents enabled the dream of an integrated primary school in south Belfast, to become a reality. The school began in a dilapidated, derelict children’s home in Adelaide Park. The building was full of dry rot and had a bath in the staff room. However, her tenacity from those early days has ensured the sustainability of Cranmore, which now caters for over 224 pupils and their parents and is now located on Finaghy road North.
This innovative environment has truly transformed the lives of some of the most disadvantaged pupils and their families in South and West Belfast. Helen has always gone the extra mile for parents and pupils and it is important to note that the school has 47% of pupils registered as having special educational needs (SENs) including Attention Deficit Disorder, Autistic Spectrum Disorder, Aspergers Syndrome, Tourette’s, Spina Bifida, dyslexia and moderate learning difficulties. This has grown from 4% in 2002 due to the reputation that the school has for its’ special needs provision and was recognised in the school inspection report in October 2010 by the ETI.
The sign on the door may say the principal, the sign on the door could easily say doctor, marriage or bereavement counsellor, therapist or solicitor. No matter how he or she may have presented, no child or adult has ever been short-changed. When she was awarded the Teaching Award it was said that “she will stop at nothing to get what she wants for her pupils”.
In 2007 £ 45,000 in donations were secured to develop a Sensory room in Cranmore and is among one of the first mainstream schools in Northern Ireland to develop a fully equipped Sensory Room
The Sensory Room is an invaluable resource in managing and nurturing pupils with Autistic Spectrum Disorder and Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties. Pupils experience social skills sessions in the room where they engage with classroom assistants in a structured programme of activities aimed at developing a calm and positive attitude towards learning. Helen identified the need for this provision after many years of working with children in Cranmore whose conditions caused them to be extremely stressed, confused and sometimes volatile in their behaviour.
The whole school community contributed to the ‘Legacy Garden’ which was opened on Friday 21 June 2013 after a celebratory concert. This was one of the ways we marked the Principal’s retirement and her contribution to the school that we all love. Everyone knows she is one serious gardener!! Pupils, parents, teachers and grandparents all contributed to the mosaic which is found in the centre of the garden and shows Helen with the children having fun!
Helen has given a lifetime service to education, but her greatest achievement has arguably been over the last 20 years when she has developed and grown one of the most successful and forward-thinking primary schools in Belfast. The quality of educational provision is highly regarded by the educational community and the Education and Training Inspectorate.
‘She may wear a size four shoe but I’m sure you’ll all agree they’ll be very, very big boots to fill!’