Anne Denham believes a school belongs to its community, but the community is only as strong as its school.
Having started her career at Whalan Public School more than 30 years ago, she was drawn away from the area to work in special education in Sydney’s south west.
She always wanted to return to the west as a principal, and when she was offered the top job at Willmot Public School, it was her “perfect match”.
“I always had my heart in Mount Druitt,” Ms Denham said. “There’s something special about the western suburbs.
“People ‘get’ community here. It’s a place that draws you in. It’s a place where you can enable people, because the people are so open to it.
“I really sense that in this area it’s a community that wants to get on with things and help each other.”
Since Ms Denham’s appointment as principal, the school has been a key component in a collective working to turn the suburb around.
Willmot has long carried a weight of stereotypes and bad press.
The school has formed seamless ties with a “revolving door” of services, including those working out of Willmot Community Hub such as Jesuit Social Services and Rap 4 Change.
“This area lends itself to that,” Ms Denham said. “It’s the holy grail for any principal to be able to work within, and walk within, your community.
“Not just to be a school but to be a part of a team working together to inspire the community. If it’s a good idea and it should happen, it’s my job to make sure there’s no barriers.”
Jesuit Social Services general manager David Hammond called Ms Denham Willmot’s “secret weapon”, as the suburb strives to change its narrative.
“I’ve worked all over the country in community development, in hundreds of schools around Australia,” he said.
“What I see in Anne is that she is unusually committed to the whole community. I know she sees the school as the heart of it.
“I think she’s outstanding. She practices what she preaches. She’s focused and she knows her plan.”
Community consultation has formed the base for work at an “evolving school”, which has a family turnover of more than 35 per cent each year.
That part is challenging, Ms Denham said, but the school actively seeks out new families in the community as soon as they arrive.
“The thing I spend the most time on is working out what the communit’s values are,” she said.
“One of our strategic targets is working effectively with the community. [Schools] tends to spend less time on that and more time on what happens in the classroom.
“But...without that part of it [engaged parents], it’s like having a chair with two legs. It’s the most important part, it’s also the most urgent.”