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South Merredin Primary School, Western Australia

Genuine partnerships with the Aboriginal community

The context | Beginnings | Small steps | An Aboriginal mentor


The context

Merredin

Merredin is a regional centre on the Great Eastern Highway, about 300 kilometres east of Perth and about halfway between Perth and Kalgoorlie. It is central to the Western Australian wheatbelt but has a population of fewer than 3000, a number that has fallen in recent years due to drought and the loss of a number of government agencies from the town.

There have also been demographic changes as low-cost housing has attracted people from lower socio-economic groups.

South Merredin Primary School has 180 students from Kindergarten to Year 7 and about 15% are Aboriginal. This number fluctuates to some extent due to movement of Aboriginal families, primarily between Perth and Merredin.

The school has a reasonably stable staff and most are women from rural backgrounds.


Beginnings

Kym Allsop (left), with Aboriginal Liaison Officer Tanya Garlett

Principal, Kym Allsop (left), with Aboriginal Liaison Officer Tanya Garlett

Kym Allsop is Principal of South Merredin PS. Here she talks about her time at the school.

When I arrived here four years ago there were a number of big issues at the school. Student behaviour management was one, and it involved Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal kids. There was gang behaviour, vandalism, bullying and some assaults on staff. Suspension rates and lunchtime detention rates were very high. Staff morale was certainly very low.

We had kids who weren't actually engaged in the educational program, and I think that was linked very much to the environment that existed within the school. There are plenty of social issues in the community but it's important to point out that, while it's true that there are Aboriginal families with great needs, it's also true that there are strong Aboriginal leaders as well. Some of them have now become mentors and role models.

But we just didn't have good interactions with our Aboriginal parents at that time and they didn't feel welcome at the school. We weren't using Aboriginal perspectives across the curriculum and we weren't looking at cultural awareness for staff. Teachers' awareness of strategies for dealing with the cultural needs of our kids was also very low.

I thought that, if we just chipped away step by step, we could actually achieve some amazing things.


Small steps

It was about little steps to start with and it was certainly about looking at my experience of working with other Indigenous people. The first thing that jumped out for me was to look at whether the school's behaviour management was inclusive of the different people that we have within our school community. It really wasn't.

First, I tried to draw the line about behaviour and to support staff with very clear guidelines about what was acceptable. I became a bit of a witch for the first six months or so but kids knew exactly what the consequences were of unacceptable behaviours.

But for the kids who presented with really challenging behaviour it wasn't just a matter of putting them on in-school suspension or out-of-school suspension. The important thing was to go out and meet parents in their homes or wherever they wanted to meet, and discuss it with them. That hadn't been happening.

At the same time, I developed a good relationship with Tanya Garlett, the Aboriginal Liaison Officer who's part of the District Office. We talked about our beliefs and about how we were both committed to Indigenous kids achieving positive outcomes from school. So we often went on home visits together.

And it wasn't about just doing home visits about the bad things. It was really important to be able to go and let someone know that their child has been at school on time every day. Or that the child has been working really hard in class. So parents started to see a care factor starting to come out. And that was really important about forming those relationships and creating a school environment that was ultimately safe.

The other thing in the first six months was cultural awareness training for our staff, looking at the sorts of strategies that worked best with our kids. Again, Tanya Garlett was a vital part of that process and assisted me to plan workshops. For some teachers, the key was understanding the difference between Standard Australian English and Aboriginal English and how to acknowledge that in your classroom.


An Aboriginal mentor

Aboriginal mentor, Aubrey Nelson

Aboriginal mentor, Aubrey Nelson

It was at that time that I was trying to find a local Indigenous person who we could have as a mentor working in our school. I wanted the students to have someone they could they relate to, but I also knew it was an active way of working out the discipline issues. In the Kimberley, I had seen the respect Aboriginal kids can have for a senior Aboriginal person.

I applied for and received IESIP funding for the position and also had some District Office retention and participation funds.

I knew of Aubrey [Nelson] around the town and I knew how he was respected. He does so much for our community in general and does a lot for the Indigenous community but I saw him as such a busy person that I didn't think he would be available for this job. But then I was talking to Tanya Garlett and she suggested Aubrey so we approached him and took it from there.

When Aubrey started in 2002 we sat down and talked about our visions for what the school could be and we had a lot in common. He's a person who's very concerned about the directions of the community and his father is an Elder. Aubrey has huge community responsibilities to a lot of committees and he works with the other schools as well. So, if he has anything to do outside the school, I have no hesitation in saying, yes, just go and do it. Because that's the important connection between school and community.

In the first year he was here, he started by working in class with the students, supporting them and making them feel a part of the learning environment. At that time he worked particularly with children who presented with challenging behaviour. He would sit with them and try to engage them or sometimes take them from the classroom and still engage them in learning.

We agreed on two focus areas at the start. One was about the Indigenous kids having a mentor that they could connect to. The second was working with me to establish positive perceptions and relationships between staff and the Indigenous kids.

So Aubrey was able to help staff look at how we could take our knowledge from the cultural awareness training and use it in our teaching and learning programs. In the first year he put a lot of effort into getting local Aboriginal people to come in and share their stories, experience and knowledge with students and staff.

These days, he delivers Aboriginal Studies in collaboration with classroom teachers and has also been responsible for introducing Noongar language into the curriculum.

And finally, Aubrey's role in promoting and supporting the involvement of Aboriginal parents in the school has been vital. From a situation where there was really no functioning ASSPA Committee, we have come so far that we recently won a state award.

footprints

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