If you type "super school" into Google, it's no surprise that the first hit you'll find is the Greater Shepparton Secondary College or, as the locals know it ", the Shepp Super School."
Raised in controversy, it seems to be a dividing factor in the local community - you either hate it or are persecuted for not hating it.
From racial attacks to classism to parents complaining about there being lack of public school choices in the community - the super school has been nothing but controversial for Shepparton.
I reached out to one of my old teachers, now working at GSSC.
I knew this person was pretty happy with their new position at the school and thought it would be a good in for me to chat with other teachers and staff.
I was shocked when I received their response.
"I wish I could but the principal has banned us from making any public comments," they wrote, "She is the only one who is allowed to do so. Hope you are well."
I didn't know how to reply.
If the school was doing so well, why weren't the staff allowed to say so?
I pressed a little further to find out exactly what was going on.
"We have also been banned from making any comments on social media about the school," they said.
I would have to widen my search for people willing to speak about the Greater Shepparton Secondary College.
The $140.5 million school has been causing controversy since it was born out of the Shepparton Education Plan.
A deep look into the educational outcomes in Shepparton revealed that students of Shepparton have some of the lowest educational, health and wellbeing outcomes in Victoria.
By merging our four local public schools, students could access better funding, support and technology.
The school claimed they would help foster students into successful career pathways – whether that be by attending university, learning a trade, or gaining employment in the local area.
In theory, the GSSC sounds like a great initiative.
As someone who grew up in Shepparton, I remember missing out on certain classes because there weren't enough students or funding for them to go ahead – of course, these were usually art subjects.
Being one of the art nerds of high school, my heart swelled at the idea that there would be better access to the arts.
This can make or break a student who is struggling.
The school production or weekly band practice is often the shining light getting these kids through, especially in a lower-economic city like Shepparton.
However, since it was announced in 2019, parents and community members have been voicing their concerns - with zero community consultation, the idea seemingly came out of nowhere.
Parents remained concerned about the lack of choice, as now there is only one public school in the region.
Although parents and students would never admit this, I feel the biggest issue here is classism.
Originally with four public schools in Shepparton, there was a hierarchy of which was the "best" school to send your child to.
And of course, this school had no issues ever and was fully funded and just an excellent time for all – well, at least that's the impression the parents always gave to others.
Having worked at the "popular" school a few years back, I can guarantee you this was not the case.
There was still violence, bullying and racism.
Now people seem to think these issues are only occurring because of the super school.
A quick search on Facebook and I found myself at the "Greater Shepparton Voice 4 Choice Public Education Group."
I must admit, I wasn't surprised that the majority of the group's participants were disgruntled parents.
Of course, having had a recent election, there were a lot of posts about what our local representative was going to do in regards to education in Shepparton and who would (or wouldn't) receive their vote based on campaign promises.
I chatted with our newly elected representative Sam Birrell (The National Party), to see what he thought about the super school.
I was particularly interested to find out what his campaign had been like, considering how vocal the "Voice 4 Choice" group seemed online.
"The College is a very touchy subject," said Birrell, "Online has gone crazy and sort of shut down the ability to have any discussion about the school, which is disappointing."
Sam should know - when working as the CEO of the Committee of Greater Shepparton, he received a lot of criticism for his support of the super school.
The new problem with the super school seems to be that there is now a lack of choice in public schools.
Working in mental health administration, I had heard stories of parents travelling thirty or forty minutes to send their children to a smaller high school.
I approached a friend's mother, currently working at a public school in a nearby town.
"I do believe we have had students (a few families) choose (School Name Redacted) over Shepp," she told me, "Probably west side of Shepp area. They may have made the choice anyway? They travel to school long hours before and after. It is harder for them to participate in extracurricular events (which are starting to return to the education landscape). Having to be at school for after school hours events or early excursion starts must be taxing or maybe they miss out? I think the kids catching the v-line look tired. At a guess I saw about 12 kids at the bus stop one afternoon. I have no hard evidence for this and can't really give you data as I am on leave but I know it was hard on families where children joined our musical production 2020/21."
Birrell directed me to an article in our local paper ("Why Should Our School Choices be Any Different to the Rest of the State?" Darren Linton, 08/06/2022), which discussed that technically Shepparton still had designated neighbourhood government schools and a "perversion of the system" has led to an imbalance, with some of our local schools being dubbed better than others.
He stated that there had been some "bullying" for people to get their children into their preferred public school & if we all stuck to our closest school, none of this would happen.
Speaking with local accredited mental health social worker Celeste Douglas, I wondered whether she had experienced an increase in referrals since the super school.
"We were first working at headspace when there was talk of the super school. Do you remember what that was like?" I ask.
"Where we? she said, "Oh yeah! There was a real panic around it and an assumption from parents that it would be shit. Everyone took to community forums, and there was this sense that this will be bad. It was like a fear campaign."
"Do you think there has been an increase in mental health issues since the super school opened?"
"Young people don't seem to have a negative look at the school. It was never really perceived as being negative to them. It may not be affecting the child, but there is a follow-on effect from parents being negative about the school."
"So, are the issues the same? Or are there new problems that have come with the super school?"
"There are still the same issues that would happen at any school, whether these issues are caused by the super school is unsure as it's not recognised as the cause of the problem from the young person's perspective. In theory, the school is good. The problems are the same underlying issues that we have in the community."
"Like class and race?"
"There are underlying systemic class-based factors that are affecting the way the school is perceived, definitely. In terms of racism, there are always challenges with a diverse community like Shepparton, irrespective of the super school. These issues are just as likely to have happened if the schools had stayed split; it's just a louder crowd complaining."
"What about "lack of choice"?"
"In a big community like Shepp, you would move here expecting more of a choice. It makes parents feel powerless, especially if the school your child is attending isn't meeting their needs. Governing principles at different schools are going to have different ways they run their school, which suit the different needs of students. There are many "leaders" at the super school, but still, only one overall principle guiding the way."
I finally felt I had struck gold when a worker at the school, who wished to remain anonymous, responded to my messages.
Sitting down for lunch at a local café, I was finally able to pick their brain on what was actually happening at Greater Shepparton Secondary College.
This person first explained how funding is granted to the school.
Like most public schools, funding is based on the socio-economic situation of the students enrolled.
Because we have now grouped all our public schools together, we have a much lower socio-economic cohort rather than being spread around the schools.
This means the school is eligible for much more funding than the four schools would have been suitable for when separated.
Though there are no more "poorer" students than before, they still make up the same percentage of the student population.
It is just that families are more aware of them and are not used to being exposed to that part of life.
In fact, the worker found that the kids were much more open to the diversity of their school and excited to learn about other cultures.
They said that their cultural awareness week was the biggest they had ever seen, with many students offering to volunteer to help with lunchtime activities.
"Students are much more accountable for their new environment and less likely to accept inappropriate behaviour," they said, "We've had significantly less graffiti because students know they will have that area taken away. They want a nice environment for everyone. They're happy to call others out."
Minorities are getting more funding because there isn't just one or two at the school anymore; there are maybe fifty or sixty.
This also means more opportunities for translators and cultural workers to help encourage these students.
Students who need extra support can be clustered together rather than competing with other students for attention.
The school now also has the mental health/wellbeing resources that would never have been available if they were separated schools.
Every child from day one has a large care team consisting of their daily homeroom teacher, a house leader, house support staff, house principal and wellbeing team, and whatever regular teachers they have.
Depending on their needs, the student may also have access to cultural/language support, nurses, doctors, paediatricians, mental health teams, LGBTQIA+ support services and their own house administration.
These services are all provided for free at the school.
I was so fascinated to learn all this.
I had no idea that all these resources were available at GSSC.
It made me wonder how different my high school experience could have been if I had had access to all of this.
Greater Shepparton Secondary College really seems to be trying its hardest to give its students the best possible schooling experience, which was the ultimate goal of the super school being created.
At the end of the day, there will always be "what if's" with a super school.
If the money had been pumped into the original schools, would we be able to better the outcomes for Shepparton students?
We will never know - time will only tell.
People who were asked for comment and declined/did not respond
Wendy Lovell (Member for Northern Victoria Region)
Suzanna Sheed (Independent Member for Shepparton District)
Barbara O'Brien (Executive Principle of Greater Shepparton Secondary College)