Gungahlin’s newest public school will take the name of Wiradjuri activist Shirley Smith, better known as ‘Mum Shirl’, opening as Shirley Smith High School in 2024.
The Kenny school will only accept year 7 students for the initial intake, before ramping up to its full capacity of 800 students from years 7 to 10.
Shirley Smith’s grand-niece Ann Weldon said she was proud the name of the new school would recognise an “incredible Australian treasure”.
“There only was and always will be just one Mum Shirl and I’ve always said you could hear Aunty Shirley before you saw her,” she said.
“She was unique and I know that she’ll be shining down on us and her spirit will certainly be filled, I believe within this school.
“Thank you for $80 million being spent on this school in honour of an incredible, mighty, beautiful, unbelievable woman.”
Shirley Smith’s name was selected following consultation with ACT Placenames, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elected Body and the United Ngunnawal Elders Council.
Ms Weldon also took the opportunity to share the story behind how her Aunty Shirley was given the name she was better known by in her community, Mum Shirl.
“She ended up going to visit my uncle in jail,” Ms Weldon explained. “But of course when she went there, everybody wanted to see her.
“When the authorities asked who she was, she would just say she was their mum, so that’s how she got the name Mum Shirl.”
Shirley Smith frequently visited and supported Aboriginal people who had been incarcerated or who were facing criminal charges in Sydney.
She also supported children placed in her care and was a founding member of many community services in Redfern, including the Aboriginal Children’s Service. She was also involved in the establishment of the Aboriginal Medical Service, Aboriginal Legal Service, Aboriginal Housing Company and the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs.
Her ongoing activism and advocacy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has been attributed to the establishment of similar services in other communities outside of Sydney.
But Ms Weldon said one of her most treasured memories of her Aunty Shirley happened far from Sydney, on the now-defunct Erambie Aboriginal Reserve near Cowra.
“My dad passed away. [Aunty Shirley] was in Sydney and she came straight to us. She bundled up myself and my sisters and there were five of us girls,” she said.
“She had her beautiful big arms wrapped around us and I looked up at Aunty Shirley and I said, ‘When is our daddy coming home? Where’s daddy?’
“She pointed up to this evening star and she said, ‘See that star. That’s your daddy and he’s always going to be looking down and protecting you'”.
ACT Education Minister Yvette Berry also paid tribute to the Wiradjuri activist and said her story lent a “powerful start” to the new school.
“I know that this will be a school that will have a deep cultural integrity and deep knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture,” she said.
“[Students will] be able to really engage in looking after and caring for land with that deep engagement from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander [community] in the ACT.”
A principal (Rebecca Pearce) and deputy principal have been hired, recruitment is underway for teachers and community consultation will begin soon on the school’s logo and uniform.
The announcement of Shirley Smith High School’s name and executive team follows several other school projects underway or recently completed in the fast-growing Gungahlin district to keep pace with demand. These include the recently completed expansion of a Taylor primary school, a new Taylor high school opening in 2025 and a new college in Nicholls to open before 2030.
Minister Berry said the new Shirley Smith High School would take pressure off other schools in Gungahlin, but admitted enrolment figures were lower than expected.
“We were expecting higher numbers, but at the moment [we have enrolments in the] mid-70s. So, it’ll be enough to get started,” she said.
“But I think that you’ll see those numbers go up very quickly.”