Swan View Senior High School - From Resistance to Engagement: Changing Indigenous student attitudes towards education and training.
The Swan View Senior High School ACCESS team were nominated for the Garth Boomer award by a former student of the program, Kellie Austin. Here Kellie explains why she wanted to nominate the team:
'As an Indigenous graduate of the ACCESS program 2004, I very much wanted to nominate the teachers Geoff, Wayne and Trish and the AIEO Tania for the Garth Boomer Award. I realise that Mr. Boomer was a strong advocate for trusting students and giving us a say in not just 'what' but 'how' we learn as well as how we are assessed and putting us at the centre of teaching and learning. Thanks to the sincere and far-reaching reforms made by the ACCESS staff, I was able to grow from an alienated underachieving Year 11 student achieving at about level 3, to a successful graduate achieving at level 6. I also gained self confidence and esteem so as to gain a place at university which is a first for my family. It is not just me who benefited. Swan View always had a great many Indigenous students but the system seemed to be against us. Not now though. Thanks to the ACCESS staff, we have a real alternative to powerlessness of which I am living proof. I therefore nominate the ACCESS team for this prestigious award.'
Student, Swan View Senior High School
Wayne Morrow accepts the Garth Boomer Award on behalf of the Swan View Senior High School ACCESS team. The Award was presented at the 2005 ACSA Conference. Presenting the award is ACSA outgoing President, Lesley McFarlane.
Before 2003, Indigenous students at Swan View's Senior High School experienced frustration, marginalisation, early drop out and high rates of chronic absenteeism and suspension. In the last few years, this situation has changed dramatically. Thanks to the work of Geoff Holt, Wayne Morrow and the Alternative Curriculum Combining Educational & Social Skills (ACCESS) team, retention and graduation rates for Indigenous students now surpass those of non-Indigenous students. To find out how this remarkable turnaround was achieved, read their story ...
School & Community Context:
Swan View SHS is situated in the eastern suburbs of Perth around Midland: an area characterised by post-industrial and social challenge, not least pertaining to the socio-economic predicament facing the Indigenous population. The area has among the fastest growing Indigenous populations in Australia and is characterised by high levels of chronic unemployment (50% when CDEP - work for the dole - is excluded). Predictably, low economic prospects are mirrored by poor health and educational outcomes endured by the Nyoongar population of the area.
Swan View SHS has the highest Indigenous population of any metropolitan government school in WA, with 135 of the 800-school population identifying themselves as Aboriginal. Up until 2003, the educational experience of the school's Indigenous population was markedly inferior to that of the non-Indigenous population by any measure with retention rates Yr 8-12, at less than 20% as opposed to 67% for non-Indigenous students, graduation rates at or around 10% compared to 60% and concomitantly high rates of chronic absenteeism, suspension and widespread disillusionment among Indigenous students, Aboriginal and Islander Education Officers (AIEOs) and community members.
Aboriginal Student Marginalisation & The Failure of Mainstream Schooling:
In 2002 the newly appointed Aboriginal Curriculum Coordinator, Geoff Holt, working alongside AIEO Tania Cavanagh and colleague Wayne Morrow, undertook a survey of Indigenous students enrolled in Years 11 and 12 to find out their perspectives as to what was causing such poor outcomes. This involved face-to-face interviews with over 20 students, of whom 90% reported that they felt that they were failing and likely to drop out of school imminently. The causes of their alienation were consistent with those identified by (Gray & Beresford, 2001) whereby Indigenous students were underachieving and dropping out due to a failure on the part of the school and the system to recognise, understand and respond to their cultural differences and diverse learning needs. Student responses clearly indicated that they did not enjoy good relationships with many teachers, were far behind with assignments and felt a strong sense of shame which inhibited their seeking support.
Many students reported that they came to school, sat up at the back, did little if any work and were not offered meaningful assistance by their teachers, they also reported that the curriculum was boring and irrelevant and that they and the two AIEOs in the school felt powerless to do anything about the situation. This gave rise to a vicious cycle of students voting with their feet by skipping classes or school altogether if they felt that their teachers were not interested in them or if they anticipated being singled out for punitive treatment such as detentions or being kicked out of class.
Simultaneously, interviews with teachers revealed a widespread subscription to deficit explanations of Indigenous student failure whereby poor attendance, low levels of participation and restricted outcomes were a product of student and family indifference to schooling. Communication between teachers and school administration was commonly limited to officious letters of concern reporting unsatisfactory achievement on the part of Indigenous students; laying the blame clearly at the door of the Indigenous community with not so much as an inkling of admission of systemic dysfunction or limitation. Many parents reported frustration at the judgemental assumptions and lack of understanding emanating from the school and some condoned the student decisions to skip classes to avoid conflict with teachers. They said that not much had changed since they were at school and dropped out prematurely for much the same reasons. This cycle is epitomised in the following extract from an interview with an Indigenous Year 11 VET student when discussing his absence from class:
What started it off in the first place? Well when I'd come in and not really know what to do coz I was a bit behind, he would just sit there and not help me or nothing, then when I wasn't doing work he'd just come up and kick me straight out of the class.
How many times did that happen? Pretty much nearly every lesson.
So what was your reaction? I just stayed away on the days when I had metalwork.
Even though you said that you like the subject? Yeh
Were any of your Aboriginal friends in that class? Yes Ronald and Terry, and they'd get sent out too
How do you think the teacher saw you then? As a slacker who didn't want to work, but I did want to, I just didn't know what to do that's all.
This experience is typical of many reported in our research by Indigenous students, articulating a form of 'Benign Neglect" (Beresford & Omaji, 1996) to which Indigenous students were exposed and which resulted in their underachievement or dropping out of school entirely.
Having thus gained a sobering and comprehensive insight into the plight of Indigenous students in the school, the challenge was to find a way to improve matters. Initially, in mid- 2002, we established a support unit for upper school students, which students could attend to receive support with assignments instead of their mainstream classes with concerned teachers giving up their DOTT time to staff the unit. Within the space of a few weeks it became apparent that Indigenous students were much more comfortable in the support unit. Their attendance improved markedly, their demeanour changed and they began to catch up on work. However, this did not solve the problems they experienced back in mainstream classes where both the form and content of their learning was alienating for them. It was only a palliative approach and was only of a temporary nature.
"I used to hate school and wag but now I look forward to coming in every day" - The Birth of the ACCESS Unit:
As a result of these findings, and having consulted widely with students, parents and AIEOs, Geoff Holt and Wayne Morrow made a formal presentation aimed at establishing an alternative pathway for Indigenous students in upper school. The haemorrhaging of Indigenous students from school made the need for a radical alternative relatively easy to sell to the school principal and senior staff and in 2003 the ACCESS program started with 20 Year 11 students of whom all but 3 were Indigenous.
Having established a new pathway, it became vital to ensure that the program had both rigour and integrity; students and parents in the Indigenous community wanted a program that would address their needs for improving literacy, numeracy and competency in information technology. They also expressed a desire to gain work readiness skills and wanted a lot more say in not just what they learned but how learning was facilitated. Considerable research went into looking at curriculum models and pedagogical approaches. This culminated in collaboration between Geoff Holt and the Curriculum Council of WA, who invited ACCESS students and staff to participate in research into new Courses of Study by piloting IT courses in 2004.
Integration of the Curriculum & Community Participation.
With the support of the Curriculum Council, we were able to create a fully integrated model curriculum for Year 11 in 2003 and Year 12 in 2004, this placed Indigenous Health and Wellbeing at the core of the curriculum, integrating Health Studies with English, Maths and Information Technology. This took place with 3 days a week spent at school and 2 days in the workplace. Students and staff negotiated behavioural parameters, responsibilities and consequences for those in the Access unit giving students a real say in reshaping the environment in which they were to learn. They made it clear that they wanted a high quality learning environment with computers and multimedia facilities, preferred to stay largely in one room for most classes and to have a sense of ownership, to affirm their Indigenous cultural identity and to make their learning active, collaborative and fun. They wanted time to listen to music, to earn free time and to work together a lot more so that they could help one another.
Above all they wanted to enjoy school, to have good relationships with their teachers and to achieve secondary graduation.
Listening & Acting
The importance of enquiry and actively listening to student perspectives cannot be overstated here. It is fortunate that this very aspect of our work was sanctioned as a doctoral study on the part of Geoff Holt, the Department and Edith Cowan University, with the assistance of AIEOS and other staff. Above all the research was, and is, about the students' perspectives from a critical standpoint. The research in itself is a form of social and educational criticism and is aimed at changing our approach to Indigenous and Non-Indigenous education by reappraising both the Form and Content of Schooling in the post-modern era. As a result of the students being participants in the research, interviews were conducted with them on all manner of aspects of their educational experiences over a two year period. This gave true voice to the students, and with that voice came insight and direction for meaningful and dynamic change.
In 2003/4 the first ACCESS cohort were very much under observation to see if an alternative approach could and would work. It is worth noting that several of the initial cohort had failed to complete Year 11 in 2002, for the reasons outlined above, and were resilient enough to come back and repeat Year 11 in the ACCESS program. The results of the program were nothing short of remarkable; average attendance rates rose from 50 to 90% with huge reductions in unexplained absences. 100% of the cohort passed Year 11 and moved into Year 12, and 15 Indigenous students completed Year 12 in 2004 achieving full secondary graduation (90%) . Outcomes were enhanced to the point where the students achieved among the top ten combined grades for Applied Information Technology in the state for Year 12. Of these no fewer than 7 students gained entrance to university, 4 onto bridging programs and 3 directly onto undergraduate courses in social sciences. Other students gained employment and apprenticeships. The effect on the whole school was an elevation of Indigenous student retention rates to 70% resulting in an unprecedented instance of surpassing those of non-Indigenous students.
It is difficult to overstate the significance of the achievement of 'the group that broke the mould' in terms of the effect they had on changing the aspirations of younger Indigenous students and community perceptions. It has now become the norm to stay on at school and to attend. Resistant behaviours associated with alienation and conflict have been superseded with engagement and we have enjoyed a 95% retention rate into Year 12 in 2005, with 25 Indigenous students in Year 11 ACCESS. No fewer than 23 Indigenous students have won school-based traineeships. In 2004 some 250 parents and family members attended a presentation in the community sports hall to congratulate the graduating students. Parents and AIEOs commented that they had never experienced such positive directions in schooling and community involvement for Indigenous students.
Pedagogy: Relationship Based and Active
The ACCESS unit started out with one year group, an experimental curriculum and format. Its huge success has seen us expand to include Year 10, 11 and 12 year groups with in excess of 70 students, three full-time teaching staff and Tania the AIEO dedicated to providing pastoral care within the unit. The leadership shown by the Curriculum Coordinator resulted in his being awarded a 2004 NAQT award for outstanding achievement by a teacher. The ACCESS unit enabled the school to win a Dare to Lead Award from the APAPDC in 2004 and attracted IESIP financial support from Dr Brendan Nelson to develop the physical infrastructure of the unit. Sustainability and collaboration has been very much the focus of the ACCESS team in the past two years with Wayne Morrow and Trish Buchanan taking responsibility for Years 12 and 10 respectively. The sharing of good practice in curriculum innovation and integration has seen the team develop seamless rich tasks with their respective year groups with all teachers collaborating in cross curricula task negotiation, pioneering the integration of technologies such as interactive white boards in order to raise participation levels.
The relationship basis of pedagogy has been central to the running of the program, as has the negotiation of learning contexts and formative assessment. This has included a thorough reappraisal of the equity inherent in assessment mechanisms, to become as diverse as possible utilising oral, demonstrational, practical and observational assessment. The development of assessment rubrics in everyday language and an emphasis on peer evaluation and assessment has given rise to elevated outcome achievement on the part of students across the board. Skills teaching compliments portfolio development in focus areas of English, Maths and IT and underpins the rich tasks that are decided upon by the students and staff in collaboration with community members and outside agencies. To this effect last years' graduating class researched and devised an Aboriginal community health and fitness initiative for members of their own families culminating in a term-long health, nutrition and fitness program at the local rec centre, with students acting as organisers and facilitators. The richness of the context allowed almost all learning outcomes in Health, English and IT and Maths to be
This year's Year 12 group came up with the idea of a Moorditj Waabiny (Deadly Sporting Carnival) and are currently organising for 4 metro and 4 non-metro schools to come together and hold a sporting and cultural carnival for NAIDOC week at the school with Reconciliation as a major theme. This involves the class splitting into sub groups to organise different aspects of the event, seeking sponsorship and making presentations to funding bodies, carrying out costings, designing promotional materials and much more. This is real learning for a real purpose and places the students at the very heart of it. It is also significant that the students organise themselves to work collaboratively and brainstorm their own roles and how these might meet learning outcomes using technology and literacy processes. It is truly exciting work.
Wayne Morrow is currently negotiating a major project of population and health to run next year as an interagency initiative once more aimed at building capacity within the local community starting with students in the unit. The ACCESS initiative has truly empowered both students and staff to place education and schooling at the heart of the community. Students have become cultural ambassadors and role models promoting our common ACCESS values of Respect Responsibility and Resilience (The 3 R's). One of our students, who originally failed Year 11, is among others who have gone on to excel in Year 12 and has addressed community audiences, undergraduate teachers and, more recently took part in the student panel at the Values in Education Forum in Canberra. 'Dropping the Bomb' of social and economic reality, as Professor Ivan Snook lucidly put it in his closing remarks. Another student whose interview extract above epitomised his seemingly hapless plight three years ago, went on to graduate and is now a proud father and trainee mechanic.
We believe that these results can be reproduced nationally and that teachers and administrators have to show the vision, courage, tenacity and commitment to break down the many structural and cultural barriers that inhibit student and community engagement. We also believe that our example has proved that adversity and dysfunction can be transcended to create a dynamic thriving learning community where students and teachers educate each other and help to bring reconciliation and hope for a more equitable future for all Australians.
Beresford, Q., &Omaji, P. (1996). Rites of Passage: Aboriginal Youth, Crime and Justice,. Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press.
Gray, J., & Beresford, Q (2001) Alienation from schooling among Aboriginal students (District Report). Perth: Swan Education District Office.
Wayne Morrow (left) and Geoff Holt at the 2005 ACSA Conference Blurring the boundaries - Sharpening the focus where they received the 2005 Garth Boomer Award