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Sunday, January 12, 2014

Integrating through Education

by Dawne Davis
Upon entering the campus office one is quick to observe piles of papers and texts resting where they were placed, perhaps not in the same spot as the day or so before.  Natural light from the window supports the overhead florescent lighting and gives the large office more than ample illumination.  The neutral brick painted walls appear somewhat stark, except for two quotes posted which are highly revered by the occupant.

The office belongs to Colm Cavanagh, who works in education administration as the Managing Director for North West Regional College (NWRC).  The role provides him the opportunity to influence job development in Northern Ireland through vocational skills training for young people.

However, Cavanagh's passion is the establishment of integrated education in divided cities, like Derry/Londonderry.  Through stories Cavanagh's enthusiasm for education and dedication to Northern Ireland's future seems boundless.  Cavanagh is a storyteller. His stories exhibit the challenges, successes, human factors and learnings experienced by himself and others who share his calling.  Most notably, his stories educate the listener.  Those willing to listen to his words will be engaged in his presence and will walk away informed, enlightened and motivated.

Since completing his law degree, around the start of the Troubles, Cavanagh has held many voluntary and professional roles.  His personal interest in divided people and/or cultures took him to African countries, such as Tanzania and South Africa, to see first-hand the challenges encountered and how they were or were not being addressed and or managed.  In Derry/Londonderry, Cavanagh has worked to foster community and economic development, using his own personal learnings from Africa to help develop a vision for Northern Ireland.

In 1989, the Department of Education was legally bound by a statutory obligation to encourage and facilitate integrated schools in Northern Ireland.  Soon after the mandate, Cavanagh and his wife Anne were among a group of parents determined to create an Integrated Primary school.  The parents were faced with the daunting tasks of finding and bringing together interested parents from both Protestant and Catholic faiths.  They needed to locate neutral venues to hold difficult discussions, in addition to finding staff, students, a building and securing funding so the educational landscape of Northern Ireland could be changed.  Cavanagh was elected co-chair of the parent committee, sharing the position with a Protestant representative.  With the assistance from the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE) their efforts were rewarded.  In 1991 the Oakgrove Integrated Primary school was opened as the 14th integrated school in Northern Ireland and Cavanagh's first.

NICIE has benefited from Cavanagh's contributions for more than twenty years.  In his current role as NICIE President, Cavanagh can report that there are sixty-two integrated schools with over twenty-one thousand students in the Derry/Londonderry area.  While these statistics only represent 7% of the current Derry/Londonderry school system, there is reason to be proud.  Cavanagh continues to network and share NICIE's learnings with countries across the world who are experiencing the issues and challenges associated with school segregation. He has published articles and book chapters on the topic of integration/desegregation, as well as the successes of NICIE.

Cavanagh not only shares his stories, but takes inspiration from movies and books, quoting from the book Cry The Beloved Country which takes place in South Africa during Apartheid and To Kill a Mockingbird depicting racially tense inequality in the 1930s US south. Cavanagh is encouraged by the success of the student achievements and knows that the model is working well.  He believes that the landscape has changed significantly and the threat previously perceived as a result of school integration is minimizing.  While there are still hurdles, Cavanagh will continue to work towards his goal of "having an integrated school placed in an area for every child wants it in Northern Ireland."

The conversation with Cavanagh ended, quite appropriately, with him sharing a story that he believes, "is the best description of integrated eduction that he has heard." One of the parents of a mixed marriage (one Protestant and one Catholic) told the story of a conversation with their eight year old daughter a few days after she starting attending an integrated school for the first time. As the daughter was putting away her school bag and coat, the mother asked how her day had gone. The response was, "fine." The mother then asked how the girl liked her new school.  A very similar response was given,"it's fine." The mother continued with one final question asking the daughter what the differences were between her new school and old school.  The response was truly unexpected. The daughter responded "mommy, I never told you this before, but at my old school I never talked about you. I talked about daddy; but I never talked about you. At Oakgrove, I can be proud of both of you."

Through the efforts of the NICIE, spearheaded by Cavanagh and its members, there is greater potential for Northern Ireland to evolve into a united identity that is neither seen as Protestant nor Catholic, but one that is grown through unification.

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