In the past week, Principal Ralph David has taken calls from a dozen parents who wanted a tour of the public high school he has run for more than six years.
“I’m having a hard time keeping up with the interest, it’s a novelty,” he says. For more than a decade, his school – JJ Cahill Memorial High in southern Sydney – has faced countless struggles. The number of enrollments – currently around 300 – is stagnating. Families have moved out of the catchment area into more affordable parts of Sydney, while schools with “gleaming, brand-new buildings” have opened in neighboring areas.
“We faced big challenges,” says David, who started as principal at Mascot School in 2017 when enrollment was 319 – well below the capacity of 1100. It is one of a number of public secondary schools in the Inner South City in the East are significantly under-capacity and finding it difficult to increase their numbers as families move away, apply to schools outside the area, or choose Catholic or independent schools.
“The numbers haven’t really changed, we’ve just bounced up and down a bit since then. The Catholic schools in the area have become co-educational, there is competition between private schools… other government schools have opened shiny new buildings – it was very attractive to parents.”
David is on a mission to change things. For the first time in 15 years there is a registered parents’ and citizens’ association. The NAPLAN results have improved, especially the 9th grade results. The school has a yoga room, a new gym and a sustainable garden. “It’s a very different school than when I started,” he says.
“Often parents don’t see the nuances of a school unless they look inside. Parents will walk by and say, “Oh, that’s just old school,” or they’ll hear it [negative] perceptions of how it is. They don’t know what we have to offer.”
Part of the struggle to increase the numbers, David says, is the school’s location, which is adjacent to the airport. Real estate prices caused families to move west, he says. “Some parents may feel that private schools are preferable. It’s hard to fight that thinking. I would compare my teachers to any other teacher, they are phenomenal,” he says.
The comprehensive school – named after former New South Wales Prime Minister John Joseph Cahill – opened in 1961 after lobbying by locals and the council. Its catchment area includes Mascot, Eastlakes and Beaconsfield and in the mid 1990s the school had over 650 students. In the following years, enrollments slowly decreased, in 2022 there were almost 300 students.