Sr. Liz SmythLater this year, it will be Sr Liz Smyth’s thirtieth year since she entered the novitiate. She recounts her reasons for entering the Dominicans and speaks about her current role now working as Deputy Principal of St. Dominic’s Secondary School Ballyfermot

Sr Liz Smyth entered the novitiate on the 7th October 1984. Her reasons for opting to pursue her vocation with the Dominicans stemmed principally from her second level attendance at St Rose’s Secondary School in Belfast. As a teenager, growing up in the North of Ireland, she had witnessed many injustices that had been created as a result of the conflict. Her Dominican education instilled in her the belief that she was as good as everyone else and if she put her head down and worked hard, she could make a difference in the area of social equality.

She believes that education is the means to tackling social injustice and cites the famous quote from Nelson Mandella and takes it a step further believing that education is the greatest weapon to change not only the world, but also oneself.

She herself has pursued many avenues in the area of further education, originally qualifying as a chef, she then pursued a diploma in pastoral ministry after her formation years in Tallaght. Following this, she then opted to take a degree in the Milltown Institute in Theology and Philosophy.

This led her to St Dominic’s in Ballyfermot where she started in a voluntary capacity in 1995. She realised early on that she could only make changes to the formal education system from the inside and decided in 1997 to pursue her Hdip, in Trinity. She has since completed many Higher diplomas e.g. School Leadership, School Development Planning, Civic Social Political education, Drug Counselling and many other certificates such as STORM (a preventive suicide programme) CBT, and a certificate in Social Emotional Intelligence as part of her CPD.

Much of the success of St Dominic’s in Ballyfermot comes down to its mission and vision “Believing is Achieving” and to the combined team of its principal Mary Daly and to Sr Liz working together with the other education providers to encourage their students to continue in education. In West Belfast where Sr Liz grew up, students pursuing education beyond second level was far from the norm and Sr Liz has worked extremely hard at communicating the importance of education to her students. The success of this approach can be seen in the figures; those opting for third level education in St Dominic’s in Ballyfermot has increased from just 3% in 1995 to over 60% in 2014.

Sr Liz puts this success down to adopting flexibility towards how students are taught in second level, “school can be the most boring place for some kids, it can also be irrelevant to your life if you are living in poverty, violence and injustice.” The team are constantly looking for ways to involve their students in initiatives that will develop them. Too often, Sr Liz believes that our education system tries to make students conform to what we believe they should be. However, St Dominic’s gives students the flexibility to grow and develop in their own way, by involving students in emotional and social intelligence. This also extends outside of the day to day curriculum, and involves staff and students being involved in extracurricular activities to a local and national level, in sport, debates and courses.

Part of the approach of St Dominic’s is not to give up on any student and the school will “never abandon them”. There has been no expulsion in the school since 1999. Sr Liz also admits that St Dominic’s does not get worked up over the little things and this approach assists the school with maintaining a 93% student retention rate through to Leaving Certificate, which is higher than the national average. “Our goal though is 100% retention rate, but we have dropped this year from 97% last year because of cut backs, to our allocation of teachers, e.g .Career Guidance and Traveller Support resources.

The philosophy in the school Sr Liz admits is that every child that comes through this school should leave with a secondary education. “We have to support the kids, even the ones that you have to drag kicking and screaming to the end. If you leave school without your education, your opportunities in life are greatly diminished.”

On the eve of the Leaving Certificate results, Sr Liz says that she would not want to teach in a school where there is a race for points but her clear objective is to increase the figures to greater than the 60% level. “We want out students to realise that points are not everything but we also want more than 60% going to University. Every year, we encourage our students to continue in education. Former students are now qualified as leaders – managers of youth services, teachers, doctor, accountants, SNAs, Chefs and School Completion workers.” At present we have former students as part of our teaching staff and support staff.
To get to this place though, Sr Liz admits that she also had to work on herself. During her formation studies, she would be asked to close her eyes but all she could see was brick walls while others could see beautiful meadows and sea. Being a Dominican has given Sr Liz hope which she now tries to instil into her students. As a Dominican, she has also had the opportunity to study which in turn has given her the courage and strength to stand up for justice. Her guiding lines are in gospel values and she believes that we need to constantly realise that gospel values mean equality but this does not mean sameness and this is the approach that she takes to her work.

Sr Liz also makes her presence felt across the community in Ballyfermot. She has always been part of community groups such as Chairperson Ballyfermot Local Drugs Task force and is a currently Director of the Ballyfermot Advanced Drugs Project. She works with people and for people in the local community and has also helped with the refurbishment of the Ballyfermot Youth Service. Part of her work is to also facilitate the Dominican Associates group in Ballyfermot where a number of former students and staff come together at different times during the year to discuss incorporating Dominican values into their daily lives.

All of the staff in the school are also given a similar opportunity at a local level and give their time to work in partnership with the local community. “We believe that we are part of the local community.” The staff attend local meetings for example the weed awareness programme and have also been trained in the suicide prevention programme – STORM. Likewise, students are involved in programmes within the local community and with older people from the community.

Despite all of this, Sr Liz challenges herself on her innate need to travel further to the front tier. She feels the strong urge to do more in the community and more work with people who need her. In Pope Francis’s first encyclical he challenged all members of religious orders to go to bed tired after completing a day’s work, Sr Liz believes this is extremely important to her vocation.

Sr Liz’s message for policy makers is in the need to develop the whole social and emotional intelligence for students. She also believes in the new junior cert and says that investment in education, teachers and Special Needs Assistants are badly needed in schools. It is not the norm in disadvantaged areas that all students go to school and complete it. We have to tailor our programmes to suit our children. She also believes in more peer learning where the approach for teachers is to speak less.

Sr Liz concludes about her happiness in what she does but overall that she feels extremely fortunate, “I am lucky to have a Dominican vocation, lucky to be alive, lucky to be from the Falls Road, lucky to have the education I have and lucky to work in this school.”