Penrith Panthers pounce on a chance to support students

A group of Penrith Panthers NRL players is making a difference at Coreen School in Blacktown. Pascal Adolphe reports.

Image: Rewarding: Coreen School student Paul Denison, Panthers player and Coreen School SLSO Brad Fearnley and Coreen School Principal Tim Gardner.

Shannon Harris was all set to forge a brilliant career in rugby league with the Penrith Panthers NRL team when a string of injuries abruptly curtailed his ambitions.

The now 23-year-old said he had been on a professional pathway with the club since he was 14 years old so, when forced to medically retire, aged 21, and without having had the opportunity to lace on the boots for the first-grade team, he was naturally devastated.

Concerned for the potential impact on his welfare, the Panthers club offered him a lifeline with the opportunity to work at the Coreen School; a School for Specific Purposes (SSP) at Blacktown. And he hasn’t looked back.

“I wake up every morning as happy as I was playing footy,” Shannon said.

Shannon is one of 26 Penrith lower-grade players (from NSW Cup and Jersey Flegg competitions) who have worked as School Learning Support Officers (SLSOs) at the Coreen School since 2019 when an informal partnership was established between the club and the school.

Coreen School principal Tim Gardner said supplementary funding the school had received following a Staffing Methodology Review led to the partnership, which was reaping mutually benefitting rewards for both students and players.

“One of our former SLSOs was recent State of Origin star Matt Burton and we currently have nine players on temporary or casual employment who provide additional support to our students and teachers within the classroom, in the playground and on excursions outside the school,” Mr Gardner said.

“Importantly, the players are also great role models for the students and since they’ve been here, attendance is better, and students are more engaged with their learning.

“A lot of the players come from the country and bring with them a life experience they can share with the students.”

Although Shannon doesn’t hail from the country, his home suburb of Bidwill was a “similar area” to where the Coreen students now live, and this enables him to “connect with them really well”.

“I love it here,” he said. “It’s a great job to have. And I’m looking to go further in education.”

Image: Class act: The Coreen School Young Panthers SLSO class of 2022

Current Panthers Jersey Flegg player, Brad Fearnley, followed in his brother’s footsteps to take on an SLSO role at the Coreen School.

“From the first day, I knew what my brother meant about it being the ‘best job’,” Brad said.

“You are making a difference. If you come with a good attitude, it goes a long way with these kids. School is their safe place.

“It’s very rewarding when you see these students, who come from challenging backgrounds and home situations, get work experience or transition to mainstream schools.”

Panthers Wellbeing and Education Manager Kevin Kingston said the partnership provided meaningful work for the young Panther “cubs” beyond playing rugby league.

“It’s a perfect partnership,” Mr Kingston said. “The school system works well with their football. It keeps them grounded.

“We have a ‘no work, no study, no play’ philosophy at the club. The players need to have two ‘Plan As’. They must do some sort of work outside football to give back to the local community and look after the next generation.”

Coreen School caters for students who present with an emotional disturbance and/or behaviour disorder. Students may also have additional learning needs/diagnosis such as autism and/or a mild intellectual disability.

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