Engaging beyond the classroom

16 Nov

Today’s communities are faced with problems as domestic violence, broken families, drugs and alcohol, bullying and violence. All of these problems can impact student’s learning. But they are problems which require solutions beyond the classroom. This paper will look at how and why schools like Bourke High School need to engage with the local community to meet the needs of their students.

The town of Bourke in North-West NSW could be like any town in outback Australia. The decline of the rural sector and the loss of jobs has resulted in low incomes, high rates of unemployment and poverty. The Bourke Aboriginal community suffers extreme disadvantage due to the isolation of the town and the shortages of adequate health resources and overcrowded housing. The town is plagued by a high crime rate with problems as gambling, drugs and alcohol and violence. In February 2013, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Bourke has the highest rate of crime in NSW and tops the list as more dangerous to live than any other country in the world.

How these social and economic problems impact on students is evident in Bourke High School where high rates of absenteeism are the result of poverty, hunger and a lack of positive role models. These problems are compounded by the lack of a curriculum which students can identify with their Aboriginal heritage and the need for a curriculum which is culturally and socially appropriate (Vivian and Schnierer 2010). But the situation in Bourke is not unique. It has been found that more than 80 per cent of indigenous students achieved minimum national standards with very little improvement in literacy rates since 2008.

In addressing these problems, cooperation between government departments and the local community have been little more than token gestures. Limited cooperation between the various government departments has led to a waste of resources and conflicting decisions as each department receives funding to address the same problem. It is now recognized that one single agency alone cannot resolve these problems but requires the collaboration between schools, parents, the local community and other government and non-government organizations.

In May 2012, the NSW government announced its new strategy ‘connected communities’ where education and training would be linked to other related services as health, welfare, early childhood education and care, and vocational education and training. Schools would act as ‘community hubs’ where health, education, parenting support and anti-gambling measures would all be coordinated from the school grounds. In small communities as Bourke, schools are an important part of the community because they are a large employer and they have the ability to reach deep into the community more than any other institution.

That schools should be the focus of delivering services to the community is elaborated on in the ‘Full Service School’ which Joy Dryfoos defines as a school that has been transformed into a neighborhood hub and that is open all the time to children and their families (Dryfoos, 2005). In the full service community school, a range of support services are provided by community agencies on school grounds. The full service school is more than providing services to the community but is about working together toward improving the outcomes for all school students.

For example, Bourke Public School has developed strong connections with the Bourke Aboriginal Service and Community Health that comes to the school and provides free medical assistance to students requiring help with health issues. Schools as Bourke public school benefit from the support services provided on school grounds as students are absent less from school because of medical reasons. It is one example of a ‘whole student’ approach where schools are not only addressing the education needs of students, but helping to address the health and welfare needs of students.

But as Joy Dryfoos acknowledges that there is no universal approach or ‘one size fits all’ approach that is recommended to schools. In the NSW connected communities strategy, schools provide services to the community that is ‘place driven’ or tailored in their design and delivery to the needs of each school and its local community. For example in 2010 the NSW Ombudsman report into the delivery of services in Bourke identified vulnerable children are disengaging from education in Bourke (NSW Ombudsman report ‘Inquiry into service provision to the Bourke and Brewarrina communities, 2010).

Preventing absenteeism from schools requires resources and funding for which small and remote communities as Bourke does not have. While Bourke depends heavily on government funding, the school attempts to reach out to the community for support. For example, Bourke High School receives support from the Clontarf Foundation which exists to improve the education, employment and life skills of young Aboriginal men. Bourke High School offers free advertising to local businesses as SPAR supermarket in return for sponsorship of the school breakfast and lunch program. Without breakfast, students feel lethargic and can lead to difficulty concentrating and behavior difficulties at school.

The full service school is more than providing services to the community from school grounds but is a partnership between schools, families and the community work together to create better programs and address issues affecting students. Joyce Epstein recognizes that when parents, teachers, students and others view one another as partners in education, a caring community forms around students who are at the center of community partnerships. In a partnership, teachers and administrators create more family like schools and develop a positive image of schools as a caring place (Epstein, 1995).

One partnership that is working to address the problem of absenteeism from school is the involvement of NSW Police working with the Aboriginal Student Liaison Officer and the Home School Liaison Officer that make home visits to students to follow up on student attendance (Bourke High School Newsletter Term 3, Week 4 2013). But addressing a problem as absenteeism from school that leads to crime requires the involvement of the local community in school planning and decisions.

In Bourke High School, high absenteeism rates were a result of lack of indigenous perspectives in the curriculum. Students will not engage in the learning if they do not find it meaningful and relevant to their lives. Teachers need to have teaching strategies that involve real life or authentic learning experiences. For example, teachers can invite the local community as Aboriginal elders into the classroom to talk about a topic from an Aboriginal perspective.

Also absent from Bourke High School is active community involvement in the school. Community involvement in the school allows the community to have a ‘voice’ in school decisions particularly in the school curriculum. In Aboriginal communities where there is already deep mistrust of government agencies resulting from government policies in the past, involving the local community as Aboriginal Elders in school decisions and planning as the curriculum allows both teachers and students to explore Aboriginal history and culture through life stories and provide cultural affirmation and pride for Aboriginal Students (NSW Board of Studies, 2008)

But the most important partners in a child’s education are the parents and carers.  Parents want their children to succeed at school and they want to be involved in all aspects of their child’s development (Epstein). Traditionally parent and carer involvement in the school has been limited to parent and citizen (P&C) meetings or limited to participation in the canteen.  As Joyce Epstein points out, the type of school, family and community partnership programs can determine if parents become involved in their child’s education. If school’s reach out then parents will become partners in their child’s education.

For schools like Bourke High School, collaboration with parents is important for helping teachers with students learning. For example Parents can help their children develop literacy skills by reading to students or help teachers with issues as behavior problems. Unfortunately Bourke High School demonstrates limited parent involvement in the school except for special events. Although the school invites parent involvement through its online newsletter and Aboriginal Elder involvement through a local garden, there is more work to be done by the school to involve the community and address issues as absenteeism.

In conclusion, schools need to take an active role in the community in helping to address its needs. Problems as absenteeism and crime will continue to plague the community unless the school becomes more involved with the community than merely fund raising and special events. If schools are going to engage students, then they need to look beyond the classroom and evaluate school practices as curriculum design and planning. But engaging with the local community should not be a one-way approach but needs to be a partnership between school and the community.

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