Not even an earthquake could prevent a team of students from Lurgan captivating an American audience with the story of how they are breaking down barriers in a divided town.
Pupils from controlled schools Lurgan College and Lurgan Junior High School and maintained school St Ronan’s went to San Diego in the summer to present at an international conference on a shared education project focusing on areas of the town that were ‘no go’ for people based on their religion.
Since returning home the project has continued to garner interest as organisations try to tap into the shared future the children have mapped out.
Lurgan College’s Alistair Hamill, who led the shared education project alongside fellow Geography teacher Hannah Murtagh at St Ronan’s, said: “The project used GIS (Geographical Information Systems) technology introduced by global company Esri to map out their town based on how safe they felt in certain areas.
“The field trip involved pupils from both of our schools as well as Lurgan Junior High School (a controlled secondary school for pupils aged 11 to 14).
“They were taken around the town by Michael Walters of the PSNI and collected over 400 data points at which the pupils recorded how safe they felt there and how safe they would feel at 10pm on a Saturday night.
“They went into areas like Mourneview and Kilwilkie (predominantly Protestant and Catholic areas respectively). In Kilwilkie there were some Lurgan Junior High pupils who did not want to get off the bus. When filling in the survey they said they were worried they would get kneecapped.
“Because students were filling this in anonymously on their phones they were able to be completely honest.
“Twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement and there are still areas in Lurgan that people do not feel comfortable going into. There are no massive peace walls in Lurgan but there are mental peace walls that people will not cross.
“When the data was uploaded and viewed on digital maps, some wonderful conversations followed on how the pupils felt about their town.
“We did it one day in January as part of our shared education partnership and thought it would end there.
“Esri couldn’t believe how well their technology had worked in doing this survey. We got an invitation to join them at launch of the NI Science Festival.
“We thought that was the end of it, but more work was going on behind the scenes from Esri Ireland, who had put the pupils forward to present at an Esri User Conference in San Diego for 19,000 people.
“It was the perfect synthesis of the really effective use of this technology with this incredible story of the divided town of the students who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to meet.”
The pupils who made the San Diego trip were Hannah Trew, then 18, from Lurgan College, Leon Van Der Westhuizen, 14, from Lurgan Junior High, and Aisha Mouhsien, 18, from St Ronan’s. They were joined by teachers Alistair and Hannah as well as Robert Logan from Lurgan Junior High School and Michael Walters from the PSNI.
At Esri’s Redlands campus in San Diego they met Jack Dangermond, billionaire founder of the GIS company.
Aisha said: “I searched him up before we went. I thought, ‘wow, he’s a billionaire’. He couldn’t have been more friendly and down to earth.”
Leon, now a College pupil, said the visit had inspired him to change his career path: “Right now my GCSEs are tailored towards becoming a doctor, but since the trip I’ve thought about something going into Esri or using GIS.”
The team from Lurgan College and St Ronan’s were the first school group from outside the US to be selected to present at Esri HQ in San Diego.
All the other presenters were professionals working in the GIS world, yet it was the children who gained the day’s only standing ovation.
Leon said: “It literally sounded like thunder for about 30 seconds.”
Of the daunting moment when they had to look out at 19,000 people, he said: “Somebody told us you can only see the front row – that’s a lie, you could see everybody, you could see the back wall.”
Michael Walters from the PSNI set the scene by explaining to the people in California about the legacy of the Troubles in NI, before introducing the three pupils.
Lurgan College teacher Alistair Hamill said: “One of the things I’ll never forget was Jack Dangermond transfixed on the monitor, watching them with such pride. Like the audience, he was mesmerised by the power of the story and how well they told it.”
St Ronan’s teacher Hannah Murtagh told of the build up to the presentation: “When we arrived we thought we knew what we were doing but we were far from it. Most of the week on campus was spent preparing for the presentation. You’re used to six hour days in schools, these were eight or nine hour days, it was really intense.”
The stay on campus was not without its drama. On July 4 they were caught up in California’s largest earthquake for two decades.
Alistair said: “While we were giving our presentation to get final approval you could feel the shaking. Someone shouted ‘earthquake’ and we had to evacuate.”
Aisha said: “I grabbed Hannah and we ran for the exit.”
Alistair said: “That crazy event in San Diego still isn’t the end of the story. Since coming back we’ve had the chance to present at ABC Council, to the Education Authority and have featured on the cover of Ambition magazine, produced by NI Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s been a springboard, a great opportunity for the young people to tell the people who run their town how they feel about it and perhaps to bring about change.
“These young people were amazing spokespeople for the town, for themselves and for all the other young people they represented. The stories you hear on the news about Lurgan are only part of the story.”
Over 59,000 pupils from across Northern Ireland have been involved in shared education partnerships through the Shared Education Signature Project and Peace IV funds.
Indeed, almost two-thirds of schools from across all phases of education were involved in shared education partnerships in 2017/18.
These partnerships have enabled schools to build relationships, access resources to enhance education and promote equality of opportunity.
The benefits of shared education, from the perspective of school principals, are the subject of a new report from the Controlled Schools’ Support Council (CSSC)
CSSC’s report presents a range of case studies based on interviews with ten controlled school principals.
Barry Mullholland, Chief Executive of CSSC, said: “The report provides a snapshot of shared education practice across the controlled sector and the partnerships that exist. It showcases the actions some schools have taken to develop shared education projects, as well as exploring the benefits, challenges and pitfalls.
“Shared education projects deliver educational benefits to children, enable schools to access and share resources and support pupils and school staff to build relationships and engage with those from different backgrounds and cultures. Shared education adds to the educational experiences schools offer.”