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  What Works - The Work Program

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Cairns West State School

Accessing school and succeeding when you get there

Context | ESL and curriculum development | Cultural Studies | Attendance | Health and hearing


Many factors influence student success at school. Among these, consistent attendance is often cited as important, but a range of other factors also influence the way students access and engage with schooling.

Cairns West has worked through many of these, noting that access is not an end in itself, but a step towards improved educational outcomes. In fact, 'access' to schooling (and engagement when there) very much depends on what happens in the classroom and how it happens.


Cairns West State School is located in an established residential area. It has over 550 students (including preschoolers) who are drawn in part from a number of local Housing Commission estates, but particularly the Manoora area. The suburb of Manoora has the highest density of public housing in Queensland, and is cited in many State and Commonwealth studies as one of the most dysfunctional suburbs in Australia. Many extended families have been connected to the school for a long period of time.

About 70% of the school population is Indigenous and a slight majority of those are Torres Strait Islanders. A number of students identify as both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. There are also significant numbers of students of Papua New Guinean and Pacific Islander background and recently a small group of students from Sudan. Home languages include Torres Strait Creole, Kala Kawau Ya [KKY] and Meriam.

Many of the school's families are highly mobile, moving back and forth between Cairns and Cape York or the Torres Strait. Another group moves between primary schools in Cairns when their housing arrangements change. That group is largely comprised of low income families who do not have their own transport.

Cairns West is currently trialling a Preparatory Class and also has a Montessori Pre-School that aims to cater in particular to the needs of Indigenous children. With the move to the statewide implementation of Prep in 2007 and the closure of State Pre-schools, Cairns West will introduce a Prep/Year 1 Montessori class in 2007. Six Indigenous teachers work at the school and a variety of other Indigenous people work as Assistant Teachers, Teacher Aides, mentors, trainees and in other positions.

ESL and curriculum development

Principal Anne Mauger discusses ways in which the school deals with the fact that many students do not speak English as their first language.


Anne Mauger

ESL is a big issue for us. Probably the most commonly spoken language in the school is Torres Strait Creole, and many of our students are learning English as a second or third language. So we put a lot of time and effort into training teachers to work with second language learners.

We work out a package of programs that teachers will be trained in during their first term at the school. The package targets ESL knowledge, cross-cultural awareness curriculum (especially New Basics), programs that support social-emotional development of students and Child Protection.

All our teachers plan together for at least one day per term and they have an experienced mentor who works with them. We're a 'New Basics' school, so in developing those tasks we also put alongside them the 'Walking Talking Text' methodology. Every teacher uses 'Walking Talking Text' in the classroom, so it's a very important part of the school.

The collegiate approach to planning means that if teachers want to do something different, they have to justify it to the group. So the teacher's voice is important, but they have to convince their colleagues.

Shared planning of trans-disciplinary units is also important in that it helps make the connections between different aspects in the school. It's not that there's the curriculum and then there's other things we do as a school. They all need to become one.

Read more about related policies…

Cultural Studies

Anne talks about the important role of Cultural Studies.

Cultural Studies is run by Jeff Aniba-Waia. He has half an hour a week with each class. He teaches about his own culture, but what he actually stresses is that we all have different cultures and these are things we need to be proud of and share with one another. This is important for all students to understand.

We found the students were not engaging very well with LOTE. Our mandated language is Japanese. There had been a survey out in the community done through Community Renewal and one of the big issues was languages and the retention of languages. So we thought maybe what we need to be looking at is whether we can offer another language as well.


Teacher, Jeff Aniba-Waia

(Photo used by permission of Torres News.)

This year we've offered some options. Our Torres Strait Islander parents came along to the Indigenous Advisory Committee meeting and very quickly said they wanted more language but they wanted all the children to learn both an Eastern and a Western (Torres Straits) language.

They didn't want this group learning this and that group learning that. So we have six months of Kala Kawau Ya, which Jeff is able to teach and six months of Meriam. Aurie, who runs the boys' dance group, teaches Meriam as a tutor, supported by Jeff as a teacher and mentor.

Aurie was an ITAS tutor here and we managed to employ him as well as a mentor. We've had an issue with boys and reading, so we wanted more male role models, just modelling behaviour, and showing that 'he reads but he's able to play footy with me as well'. He pulled in kids who needed a bit of extra support and involved them in a boys' dance group at lunchtimes. They've now performed publicly and they're really good.

With Aboriginal languages there were more issues for a number of reasons. One is that there are a lot of languages and quite a bit of debate about who are the traditional owners in our area. Also, there were very few people with the ability to teach any of the languages. Anyway, our final decision has been to teach Aboriginal Studies where we look at the broader history of Aboriginal and Islander people in Australia. We also look at some of the art and dance, cultural beliefs and practices from different areas. At the moment we are bringing in a lot of different Indigenous people to work with the teacher, so there's diversity there. It's not just about one particular Aboriginal Nation.

Jeff Aniba-Waia talks about his program.

I designed this program myself. It's about language and having an Islander's perspective on things. My language is Kala Kawau Ya [KKY] and using the language you can go into all sorts of fields, for example geography, the environment, astrology and gardening. Dance and music are very important, too, and we do that all the time. We just had a very successful trip to the CrocFest in Weipa. The children are happy to do these activities with me and the parents are happy too. I see that as an evaluation of my own program.

Using KKY we might start off with simple body parts and then move on to simple sentences. So everybody gets to learn a bit of KKY. Next term we'll be doing Meriam, from the eastern islands.

But we are in Australian westernised society so it is important to learn the English language. It may look difficult, sound difficult [to students] but the two languages go together and my job is to teach the language bit, the identity bit. Identity and pride are very important. I try to model that myself. Coming from a semi-traditional background, but having the teaching qualification, means I can put across a message that you can be proud to be an Indigenous person. I'm proud to promote my culture in the field of education where I am today.


'The flavour is Torres Strait…'

We've also designed a Torres Strait cultural program for teachers and we've made oral history into a modern PowerPoint presentation. The audience is not only the non-Indigenous teachers but the Islanders themselves. The Islanders are so amazed to see their knowledge and their oral history there with modern technology. This is accurate and the latest information on Torres Strait cultural awareness.

There is a flavour in the presentation. The flavour is Torres Strait, the smell is Torres Strait, the touch is Torres Strait. It belongs to the Torres Strait. It is done by the Torres Strait people.

That flavour is in the school too.

Read Jeff's thoughts about working in Indigenous settings...


Cairns West continually faces the problem of unexplained student absence. Rates were halved through 2004-5 and the current target is to halve that rate again in 2005-6.

Anne explains some of the strategies used.

We changed the culture a bit so that attendance became everybody's business. These days, the process is that class teachers ring up the home if a child is away for two days and they don't know why. Even if they have to send letters home with brothers and sisters, or phone an emergency contact, they follow it up. And only then, if that hasn't succeeded, they go to our Assistant Teacher, who will do a home visit. That's only one of her jobs, though, she also deals with community liaison and works with newcomers to the school.

Often absences are unexplained because parents don't have the literacy or language skills to write a note to the teacher. To overcome this we have a simple attendance slip with some boxes to tick for different reasons for non-attendance. Parents find that much easier to use and they can just tick it and sign on the bottom. So we do now have a much better idea about why kids are away.

At school parades, we give awards to classes who have no unexplained absences, and the peer pressure has an effect as well.

Read more about related policies…

Health and hearing

Being able to access school programs requires more than just attendance. Students who are hungry, unwell or can't hear the teacher properly are not in a position to learn. Anne discusses some of these other factors, in the context of their effect on student learning.

Health is an issue for a lot of families and I'm realising that more and more. We find that many of our children don't have breakfast or if they do, it won't be much. So we work on having some brain food available for kids to graze on in the morning session. In the classroom fridges you'll find cheese-sticks and popcorn. Until the cyclone we had bananas too, and we will reintroduce them again as soon as we can afford it. All children have a water bottle on their desks, so that we can ensure they are well hydrated.

It's up to the individual teacher to manage this. Some teachers have little plates of food on the children's desks while others just have a quick break. The point is to make sure it's available to the children. It's not a meal, it's just a very small snack just to keep the brain going. We look for foods that have a relatively high GI and are easily accessible.

We also have a basic lunch program which is really just vegemite sandwiches. It's not that children don't have lunch every day but by the end of the week there's sometimes not much money around. We do keep an eye on children who regularly don't seem to be fed and talk to the parents or work with other agencies.

Hearing is a huge issue but from this year [2006], all our classrooms have a sound-field system in them. It's mandatory that it's used as well. There's no being coy about it. Even though a lot of teachers don't like using microphones, we say this is about giving children access to learning and it's not an option to deny them this access.

Students are screened regularly for hearing problems and we also have a specialist hearing-impaired unit for those children who need to communicate using signed English.

The Breathe, Blow, Cough program works well with our little ones. Sometimes the social factors around having to blow your nose in Year 7 can be interesting but we do still try to keep it going right up to Year 7.

Read more about related policies…

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