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School with a view

Tim Baker | September 2020

How the Coolangatta State School evolved into the Kirra Hill Community and Cultural Centre and the united community effort that oversaw its 100-year journey.

Over hundred years after the Spanish Flu epidemic forced the closure of the Qld/NSW border, and left 56 children in Coolangatta unable to attend the Tweed Heads school, another, more joyful centenary is being celebrated.

In 1920, the original Coolangatta State School opened on top of Kirra Hill, finally giving those Coolangatta kids their own classrooms, complete with spectacular ocean views that made it one of the most idyllically located schools in the country. 100 years on, as the world again finds itself in the grip of a pandemic, the site is now a thriving community centre, having survived a world war, the threat of commercial development and the ravages of time.

The story of how the Coolangatta State School evolved into the Kirra Hill Community and Cultural Centre says much about the tight-knit Coolangatta community, and its determination to protect one of its most coveted heritage sites.

On 26 January, 1919, the Qld/NSW border was closed to prevent the spread of the deadly influenza outbreak, which would claim some 15,000 Australian lives and an estimated 50 million lives globally. With the only school in the small border community of Tweed Heads/Coolangatta on the NSW side of the border, Queensland students were temporarily housed in a room of the Coolangatta Municipal Council offices.

“They had 56 kids in a room behind the council chambers for a whole year in 1919 …  Every time they wanted to have a meeting they had to move kids and desks out,” says Jan Derbidge, a former Coolangatta student and one of the leading lights of the Save Kirra Hill campaign. “The fight the parents had to make to get the minister to come down here. You can’t have kids in council chambers … Finally, they came down and looked at several sites. They thought of putting it out the back of Kirra, but the women argued the kids need fresh air to withstand the Spanish Flu.”

It took much lobbying by the Coolangatta community to finally get their own school on the Queensland side of the border on their preferred site. For those who were fortunate enough to attend classes in that scenic location on top of Kirra Hill, they are cherished and precious memories.

“I’ve got a long association with this school. My grandfather was the mayor of Coolangatta at the time the border was closed in 1919. He had to relinquish that duty because he lived in Tweed Heads,” says Sue Burnett, a former student. “My mother came to this school in 1921, my brother came in the 1940s, I came here in the 1950s. It was a happy experience, I had some wonderful teachers.”

“I was at school in Brisbane and we came down here and I thought I’d come to the end of the planet.  I quickly integrated and appreciated the smallness of the town and the fact that everybody knew everybody,” says Jan Derbidge.

It’s fitting that I’m sitting here with Jan and Sue in one of the immaculately restored former classrooms in what is now the Kirra Hill Community and Cultural Centre. Both women were front and centre in the campaign to save the site from commercial development and Jan now has a room in the community centre named in her honour. In October they’ll be celebrating the centenary of their old school, without quite the level of hoopla they were planning due to another global pandemic.

But it will take more than a highly contagious virus to dim their enthusiasm for their former school or the concerted community effort that saved it. “The school was an integral part of the community, Kirra was special and that was the driving force to save it,” says Jan.

The school was opened on 2 October, 1920 by the Governor of Queensland, Sir Matthew Nathan, with just two classrooms. It’s first headmaster was Claude de Jersey, grandfather of current Queensland Governor and former chief justice Paul de Jersey. An article in the Tweed Daily newspaper described the school as having a “magnificent view but perhaps a little bleak in winter but a perfect spot for summer”. Up to 50 additional students had to be accommodated in Summer months while their parents holidayed in Coolangatta.

The site, a little over 5000 square metres, was covered with lantana and scrub trees which had to be cleared. A Moreton Bay fig tree was left standing and Norfolk Pines were planted on the ground in the 1930s. Air raid trenches were carved into the side of the hill for students to shelter during World War 2.

The school population grew steadily but there was little room for sporting activities. “We didn’t have a school oval. The nearest oval was Goodwin Park, and we’d go down there of an afternoon wandering through town,” Jan recalls. “They reached a maximum here of 300. 300 kids wandering through town, and we would just walk down and the teacher would say, ‘I’ll meet you down at Goodwin Park.’”

“After school we used to swim down at Greenmount Beach with one of the teachers Mr Edwards and his kids. It was just a family thing,” says Sue.

“It was a magnificent atmosphere to grow up in, and having the sea behind us was very calming,” says Jan.

One of the school’s most celebrated alumni is the great surfing champion Michael Peterson, virtually unbeatable in surfing competition in the mid-‘70s. The Coolangatta State School provided the perfect vantage point for Michael and his brother Tommy to survey conditions at their beloved Kirra Point – an asset to their surfing development if not their education.

As another home-grown surf star, 1978 world champion Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew, noted in his best-selling biography Bustin’ Down The Door: “One particular day we were out surfing Kirra all by ourselves and I looked up at the top of Kirra Hill to the Coolangatta State School and I saw these figures over the fence, looking down at us. I instantly recognsied them as the Peterson brothers – Tom and Michael … There was no one around, just a couple of stray school kids, and we were surfing these beautiful waves by ourselves. It must have been too much for the Petersons to bear, because the next moment I saw them making a trail down the hill to the surf.” The world-beating skills of Messrs Peterson and Bartholomew were thus honed within sight of the school, decades before surfing excellence programs would become part of Queensland school curriculum.

As the school population grew, there was limited room for expansion – new blocks were added in the ’30s and ’50s and, eventually, in 1976 a new Coolangatta State School was opened in Stapylton Street. In 1979, the Kirra Hill site became the home of the Coolangatta Special and Further Education Centre, for students with special needs. But the special school also outgrew the site and was re-located to Currumbin Valley in 2006.

Fearing commercial development of this prime piece of waterfront real estate with the million-dollar views, the local community rallied, following a public meeting at the Coolangatta Bowls Club, attended by 300 people from afar afield as Brisbane and Byron Bay.

“We were very concerned about this site, when it was obviously getting ready to be sold,” says Jan. “We said, you’re not taking the school, it’s the last thing that represents our community. It was absolute vehement resistance.”

The Save Kirra Hill community group raised money collecting milk bottle tops, produced postcards, held stalls, flooded then-premier Peter Beattie with letters and ultimately took their fight to state parliament in Brisbane, occupying the public gallery with their Save Kirra Hill t-shirts and placards. They even had their own cartoon mascot – Kirra Billy. Local councillor Sue Robbins and state member Jann Stuckey were passionate supporters of the campaign. Eventually, Peter Beattie rang Jan Derbidge personally and announced they would be handing the site back to the community.

“It was a magnificent outcome, there was never a cross word spoken in any of our meetings. Council was very good for recognising the will of the people,” says Jan.

An extensive process of community and stakeholder engagement followed and the vision of the community centre was developed, providing flexible and affordable meeting spaces for small interest groups and to support artistic talent on the southern Gold Coast.  The $3 million restoration of the building won an Urban Design Award, recognising the process which involved multiple layers of government, strong community participation, and the sensitive restoration of the building.

It was officially opened in October 2011 and has proven a busy and popular home for everything from exercise groups, art exhibitions, meditation, weddings, foreign language and U3A classes, in what has been universally hailed as an inspiring win/win for all parties. “Council was happy, we were happy, the community was happy,” says Jan. “I’m totally humbled. This is rate payers’ money. I’m even more humbled that they named a room after me. I wasn’t pushing for that.”

Jan and Sue are now planning a Back to Coolangatta Day, to celebrate the rich heritage of the school site and the community that rallied round to save this treasured community asset when we are next able to gather in large numbers.

To commemorate the centenary, starting 28 September, there will be a free four-week exhibition of artwork, historical photos, memorabilia and artefacts open to the public. It will commemorate not just the centenary of the school opening, but also an emotional and hard-won victory for a community group who had thrown everything into their campaign to preserve a cherished slice of our shared history.

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