- Beyond the school gate
- Improving student learning
- Let's teach maths and science
- What's real in a virtual world?
- Careers and transition
- Curriculum for the 21st century
- Early childhood education & care
- Teachers and Teaching
Wellbeing and connectedness
Doing it in depth
Like human beings, schools are complex mechanisms. No individual support program will meet all needs. Bruce Sander explains the ‘defence in depth’ strategy used to support students at one Sydney school.
James Meehan High School (JMHS) is a comprehensive school, primarily serving the public housing community of Macquarie Fields in south-western Sydney. High on the ‘Priority Schools Funding Program’ formula for socio-economically disadvantaged schools, the community is characterised by very high levels of unemployment, 60 per cent single-parent families, high mobility and low income.
Throughout the civil unrest widely reported by the media at the start of 2005, the school adopted a stance of sanctuary and neutrality, which was widely respected. This resulted in very few students participating in street violence, no graffiti or damage being done to the school, and broad participation in student and family counselling and subsequent measures to address community needs following the unrest.
The school attributes its survival as a valued part of the community to the depth and degree of innovation that characterise its approach to staff and student welfare.
At its most basic, all student support is based on building positive relationships with staff and providing experienced teachers who are tolerant, loyal and dedicated to the school community. Over the last decade, retention of staff has become a prominent feature of this school.
Unlike many schools in difficult to staff areas, JMHS has achieved annual staff retention approaching 95 per cent. The average teacher is now in their ninth year at the school. This contributes to effective understanding of the difficult conditions and contexts in which students often function. Executive support, strong and clearly defined staff support structures, camaraderie among the staff and a strong sense of mutual support have helped to create this situation.
A more specific element of the school’s approach is embodied in its ‘Positive Peer Culture’ counselling program. Positive Peer Culture was developed as a welfare initiative by one of the school’s year-level advisers. The aim of this approach is to formally train students who have previously experienced relationship, behavioural or personal difficulties to act as mentors for younger students. This approach provides practical advice for the younger person and an increased sense of responsibility and self-worth for the mentor.
Positive Peer Culture is now the fundamental counselling instrument in the school and is well accepted by both staff and students. After executive teachers or members of the welfare team deal with initial acute incidents of bullying, broken friendships or other social problems, they will frequently refer all students involved to a Positive Peer Culture mentor for longer term follow-up. In a school where many students lack the communication or social skills to manage their personal relationships, this approach has had a positive impact on the culture of school life.
Another series of exciting initiatives within the school developed from involvement in the ‘School-Link Program’ and ‘MindMatters’ two years ago. As a consequence of a mental health expo day at the school in 2004, close links have been established with many non-government organisations working in the community.
These include provision of a Centrelink Transition Broker in the school one day a week to assist the careers adviser, as well as mutually shared programs with Uniting Care Burnside, the Salvation Army, ‘SHINE for Kids’, the ‘Plan-it Youth’ mentoring program and Mission Australia. MindMatters curriculum units on enhancing resilience and dealing with bullying have been incorporated into personal development health and physical education, English and drama.
Each year, a select group of 22 students benefits from the school’s link to the major Sydney law firm Minter Ellison. These students travel to the city fortnightly for a one-hour session with a trained mentor from the firm. This model of mentoring has the added benefit of exposing students from an insular community to life and opportunities in the city. Outcomes from last year’s tutoring included remarkable personal academic improvement for many of the students involved.
Additional support structures follow more conventional practices, common in many schools but characterised at James Meehan by their number and longevity. These include the provision of trained home-reading tutors for students in year 7, an after-school study centre, a daily call-out program for absent students, an anti-bullying program, a wide-ranging cultural and multicultural activities program and structured treatment for students at risk.
Two unique off-campus programs have been designed to support students at the more extreme ends of need. These are referred to as the ‘Mac Thing’ and the ‘HIP Thing’.
The Mac Thing was conceived in 1999 as a joint initiative with the local Tertiary and Further Education College (TAFE) at Macquarie Fields (Mac) and the Home School Liaison Officer for the district. It operates as a tutorial centre three days per week for three hours per day to cater for disengaged post-compulsory education youth in the community. Students work at the local youth centre with a trained teacher and teacher’s aide from the school. Six units of English, maths and science life-skills classes are offered, as well as a variety of TAFE courses, one day per week. The success of the Mac Thing has resulted in many students subsequently transitioning back to school or into TAFE or employment.
The HIP Thing (Holistic Improvement Program) operates in conjunction with the local Salvation Army. For two hours per day, an alternative ‘suspension centre’ is provided for students who are on long-term suspension from school. Commencing this year, tutorials are run at the Salvation Army Centre for up to six students at a time when required. Again, guidance and tuition are provided by a trained teacher and teacher’s aide.
These two supplementary programs virtually make JMHS a multi-campus provider for students whose needs cannot be met on site.
The sum of all these student support schemes is a school that sees student needs as a constantly changing puzzle. This puzzle requires multiple and unique answers and solutions in a school environment that constantly strives to fit the needs of a complex and challenging local community.
The author owns the copyright in this article. For information related to the reuse of this work in any form please contact the publisher firstname.lastname@example.org