When the Brigidine Sisters of Ireland established Kilbreda College in 1904, its name and motto provided a clear vision of the values that underpinned the school. Kilbreda comes from the Gaelic Kil meaning church or community and Breda meaning Brigid; The Community of St Brigid. And the school’s motto was adopted at this time, too: Strength and Kindliness.

More than a century later, in the wake of a global pandemic, these words and what they stand for – community, strength, kindliness – and the spirit of St Brigid have been the backbone for the Kilbreda College community as they navigated a challenging year.

This is true for Nicole Mangelsdorf, 48, who has been principal of Kilbreda College, located in Mentone in Melbourne’s south, for the past five years – three years as co-principal and two years as sole principal. Reflecting on 2020, she said this has been ‘a year like no other’.

‘It’s been an incredibly challenging year, having to respond to the constant changes that have been required at school along the way,’ she said. ‘And particularly for our students, they’ve had to show much resilience, strength and adaptability in the face of much uncertainty and change.’

‘In the initial stages during the first lockdown, it was all happening so quickly. Together with the Leadership Team, we were having to make decisions that were in the best interests of the school community, particularly around safety and learning, very quickly.’

‘Particularly during that period when we were heading into the second wave and the COVID numbers were over 700 a day, that was a really difficult time. As principal, I started to really feel the weight of the health and safety of my community on my shoulders.’

Nicole explains how the school implemented a completely new structure and timetable after Easter, adopting a completely different model when the students went into remote learning. A change as significant as this would normally be undertaken over several years but, like other schools across the state, Kilbreda College adapted in a matter of weeks.

Kilbreda Connect

Called the Kilbreda Connect model, it comprises two main elements: continuity of community and continuity of learning. Drawing on the College’s founding principles of community, strength and kindness, it was designed to optimise student connectivity and participation during a period marked by isolation and physical disconnection. And it was based on research from around the world, taking into account information from schools that had already moved to online learning due to COVID-19.

Kilbreda principal Nicole Mangelsdorf

‘We introduced periods of synchronous and asynchronous learning,’ said Nicole. ‘We had bursts of 30-minute learning times where students were online with teachers in classes, and then times where students would study at their own pace on the work that had been set.’

The research was clear: this was the most effective way to do learning and teaching in an online environment.

‘It also showed that there were high levels of exhaustion from staff and students being online for long periods of time and it wasn’t sustainable.’

To remedy this, the College introduced "Wellbeing Wednesdays" into the timetable for staff and students, providing time for students and staff 'to reflect and reconnect, and to recharge the mind, body and spirit.’

Emphasis on connectivity and care within an online context were integral throughout the year. College assemblies took place online, and the College continued the practice of daily morning homeroom prayer time. A booklet of resources was also developed with different links to online masses and prayer groups, which could be used to help nurture faith within the family at home.

Nicole is particularly proud of the way in which the students have responded to the challenges of 2020. ‘I’m incredibly proud of the girls and the way in which they accepted and adapted to the challenges,’ she said. ‘They have been incredibly resilient.’

‘Our student leadership groups continued to operate, and they did an amazing job,’ she said. ‘They recognised the importance of maintaining connections with each other, not only within their year level but as a College. Our College Co-captains were incredible. They took it upon themselves to write to every member of the school community, from Year 7 through to Year 12 and staff, just to say: we’re all in this together and we will get through this.’

Students also recognised the strain it was taking on their teachers and reached out by sending emails and thank you cards. 'I think that says a lot about their character,’ Nicole says.

Sadly, the Year 12 students missed out on spending their final year together, as well as milestone events such as graduation ceremonies and celebrations. Conscious of this, the College did everything they could to encourage and celebrate the senior class, with younger students writing letters of encouragement and recording video messages to acknowledge and wish them well.

Unexpected positives

Reflecting on the year, Nicole said there have been a number of "unexpected positives" that have come to light due to the change in circumstances.

‘Talking to the girls, they’ll say that they’ve become more independent in their learning, that they’ve grown and have developed through the experience,’ said Nicole. ‘They have a stronger sense of themselves as learners and what strategies suit them and that they’ve improved in terms of their time management and organisation. I also think they’re probably better prepared for making the transition to tertiary study or employment than previous year levels.’

It wasn’t just students who experienced benefits from disruption. Nicole says the experience of shifting learning models in a matter of weeks illustrates the staff's adaptability and openness to change.

‘I’m proud to be principal of Kilbreda, because of the nature of our community. I’m grateful to have had a wonderfully supportive leadership team and staff to navigate these challenging times and grateful to have a wonderful student body who responded so well to the challenges they faced.’

Nicole reflects on the experience of the Brigidine Sisters who first made the move to Australia from Ireland. ‘I often think about the determination of the founding Sisters who showed such incredible strength to respond to a call to leave their families to establish a school in Australia. We’ve drawn strength from their determination and commitment, and we have a responsibility to keep their vision alive for the young women in our care.’

‘My greatest hope for the girls, particularly those leaving us this year, is that they leave feeling really proud of what they have achieved and knowing that they can pursue whatever their goals and dreams are, having the confidence to do that.’

Kilbreda College is an independent Catholic secondary school with 905 students and 105 staff.