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Their blue uniforms are a regular sight on city streets; they exercise in the city’s parks and gardens, sketch in the towering cathedrals and study in the libraries, museums and galleries. Meet the girls from the Academy of Mary Immaculate.

They collect on the steps of St Paul’s cathedral with the rain – a cluster of teenage girls hunched down under umbrellas in twos and threes, all hastily drawing in their sketchbooks. Across the road, more girls in bright blue uniforms are gathered outside Flinders Street station.

The scene almost looks like a pop up artwork itself – the umbrellas shining, balanced in the crooks of elbows; the pencils skidding across paper now damp at the edges. Of course, for Melbourne locals, the sight of students from the Academy of Mary Immaculate out and about in the city is not unusual. “It’s about placing the school at the heart of the city: using Melbourne as our learning resource. Every week they’re immersed in a different aspect, so Melbourne a spiritual city, Melbourne justice and the law, Melbourne a sustainable city.”  Kilian McNamara, teacher.

Just a short tram ride away, across from the Melbourne Exhibition Building, the Academy sits behind high stone walls. Yet its curriculum is anything but confining. Founded in 1857 by the Sisters of Mercy and now a heritage site itself, Victoria’s oldest secondary girl’s school is today offering students a "uniquely Melbourne" education. "We’re so fortunate to be right on the edge of the city," says Principal Sister Mary Moloney. "The museum across the road is a second classroom for the girls."

Students spend study periods in the State Library, hunt for French restaurants in language class or pound the running track of the nearby Carlton gardens for fitness club. "All you have to do is look for the blue dress," says PE teacher Alexandra Cowin. She’s just returned from a morning of acrobatics with her year nine students at the Westside circus in Preston. "The only thing we’re lacking for here is space but the city has so many facilities for us to enjoy, we’re not really at a disadvantage."

As year seven coordinator, it’s Cowin’s job to guide new Academy girls finding their feet in the city. "We get girls from all over Melbourne, up to 50 different primary schools, which is quite unique for a secondary school," she says. "Transport is a big concern for parents but they soon realise there’s an Academy girl on every tram, train and bus heading in."

Since her own days as a nervous year 7 at the Academy, year 11 student Hannah Merrigan now feels at home in Melbourne. One or two nights a week, she volunteers on Lonsdale Street at Fitted for Work, a pre-employment service for disadvantaged women. "Everything’s just sort of in the city for an Academy girl," Merrigan says.

Head of Visual Art Martin McInerney admits the tram stop outside his art room has become an important part of his lesson plans. "Within a double period, we can be over to the National Gallery of Victoria to see the latest exhibition and back again," he says. "Where we are is absolutely unique." And, whether it’s Andy Warhol and Ai WeiWei’s work at the NGV or the latest installation at 200 Gertrude Street, students can break off, sit, take notes and gravitate to the pieces they find interesting. NGV education officer and former Academy teacher David Menzies says it usually goes without a hitch. "Some kids might push the boundaries a bit like any other group but mostly they’re great kids," he says. "They’re regulars here so they know how it works. And the art faculty there are so switched on. It’s a very strongly networked school."

Head of Science Toni Mercuri is also regularly spotted marching her students over the road to the museum. "We’ll have a look at 600-million-year-old rock samples or the dinosaur walk," she says. "The museum becomes a familiar place for our students; they have history and humanities classes there too." But Mercuri also stresses the need to make the visit relevant to the curriculum. "It would be nice to go out every day and have a coffee somewhere but we schedule the trips so they’re timely for their learning. If we were farther away, we’d have to get a bus and settle for whenever we could fit it in."

"It’s easier not to take the kids out because it’s a lot of paperwork," McInerney says. "That’s why parents are really appreciative that we do." As we speak, the art teacher is busy making last-minute preparations for a particularly tricky excursion – taking 20 year 12 students across Bass Strait to the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart. "We have a particularly creative group this year and, as MONA is such a unique gallery, we’re hoping it’ll really embolden them."

Back on the steps of St Paul’s, the girls are partaking in a day of sketching and poetry called "Visions of Melbourne". Their work from the session will be published in a book as part of the new Synergy program for year nines at the Academy.

In its second year, the program was designed by teachers Catherine Glenister, Sue-Ellen Jirik and Kilian McNamara. Each class in the year spends nine weeks in Synergy full time, covering every subject from science to history. There are scavenger hunts, art workshops, reading clubs. Students visit law courts or take their yoga mats over the road for meditation sessions in the gardens. "It’s about placing the school at the heart of the city: using Melbourne as our learning resource," McNamara says. "Every week they’re immersed in a different aspect, so Melbourne a spiritual city, Melbourne justice and the law, Melbourne a sustainable city."

Now in year 10 at the Academy, Vanessa Violo was one of the first students to participate in the program last year. She recalls that day out sketching the city’s iconic landmarks – and the snap rainstorm her artwork miraculously survived. "There were only two or three rain drops," she says. "We weren’t just Googling pictures of the cathedral; we actually went there to study it. It was really refreshing." Classmate Ellen Luu says the experience taught her a lot about herself, though at times she felt a little "stretched". "I was doing things on my own, being more organised," she says. But McNamara says the program has also revealed where the school could take more advantage of its location. "I’d say the city’s an under-utilised resource in other areas given how close it is. It’s still not that well integrated into the school as a whole."

Central to the program is the development of an inquiry-based group project over the course of the term. Working with fellow student Madison Puyat, Violo and Luu put together a five-minute video on homelessness. Catherine Glenister says the film has now inspired the Academy council to take action on homelessness in the local community. "The girls have really ignited something," Glenister says.

According to Principal Moloney, empowering students is central to the Academy’s curriculum. Newly returned from a conference on girls education in New York, she declares: "we need courageous women." She points to the Spirit of Mercy statue, standing just inside the gates of the school. It is a figure Moloney says embodies everything she wants for the girls. "If you look at her, she’s not petite, she’s strong. She has one hand raised in welcome but the other is holding fire – that’s the passion we want the girls to take out into the world – and she has one foot raised, stepping forward. This is a woman of action."

It’s that same enterprising sprit that underpinned the foundation of the Mercy Order in the 1800’s, when Mother Ursula Frayne came over from Dublin and established Mercy schools in Perth and Melbourne. Archivist Maureen McAuley says the early sisters would have been proud of today’s students, who do community work as part of the curriculum. "We’re living in a historical place; we have the traditions you would expect," she says. "We still write the girls’ names in the original register from 1857."

The Academy also remains home to a community of 10 nuns – Sisters of Mercy, many of whom are former principals in their own right. Both McInerney and Menzies speak of the "grandmother effect" of the convent.

"The place smells of food being cooked; with the sisters living there it’s more than a school, it’s a home," Menzies says. Students can attend a knitting club run by Sister Hermenilda while Sister Felicia and Sister Rosina both lend a hand during textiles classes. "I appreciate being invited," Sister Felicia wrote in a recent Academy newsletter. "The opportunity to move among the students, to share their interest and creativity was life-giving."  

But, with its bluestone walls and convent, Moloney admits most people mistake the Academy for a church. As a heritage site, the school is limited in what signage it can display. "There are significant costs associated with it," Moloney says. "And on the edge of the city, there’s no parking."

Still, Head of Performing Arts and trumpet player Andrew Power appreciates the acoustics of the chapel. "Whenever I’m waiting for a class to turn up there, I’m always having a play," he says. Power hopes university music students will soon use the chapel for recitals, forging stronger tertiary links for Academy students. Unsurprisingly, many girls go on to study at universities in the inner city such as the University of Melbourne and RMIT. Others audition for art programs at the VCA, Power says, or study internationally.

Now, on the steps of the chapel, a fresh cohort of year nines gather. They’re waiting to head off to the Melbourne Magistrate’s Court for today’s Synergy excursion. Passers-by slow their step, turning their heads whenever a strain of laugher crests the wall. It’s an interesting thing for a school to be surrounded by walls, McInerney says. "Walls tend to be barriers. But here – well, the gates are open and we’re heading out!"

Source:  Sydney Morning Herald – May 1 2016. Reprinted with permission

Messages to:  Academy of Mary Immaculate


Year 9 students from the Academy of Mary Immaculate use the city as their classroom. Photo: Joe Armao