Beacons of Hope

Aboriginal Independent Community Schools

It is a shame that negative press all too frequently overshadows the progress being made with Indigenous education in this country. There is an informal network of thirteen Aboriginal Independent Community Schools dotted around Western Australian and the Northern Territory that are teaching students far more than just English and maths. Throughout the schools, there is significant community involvement that influences what the students learn and how they develop, proving that it takes a village to raise a child.

While these schools may be small, they are big in spirit, encouraging students to be proud of both their cultural identity and what defines them as individuals.

The Australian Aborigines are the oldest living race in the world and while their culture stretches back over 60,000 years, it is continually evolving. AICS encourage students to explore their culture through a range of activities including art, dance and storytelling. While these activities are all vital parts of traditional and contemporary Aboriginal culture, they also encourage creativity and individual expression from the students.

When most Australian students start kindergarten, English is either their first or second language. At Aboriginal Independent Community Schools (AICS) students typically start school speaking their local language, which may be anything from Walmajarri to Kriol or a mixture of a few Aboriginal languages and some English.

AICS aim to preserve the cultural practices, languages and traditions that characterise the communities the students live in while simultaneously teaching them English literacy and numeracy to prepare them for the outside world. When all of the children from the Kadjina community start school at Wulungarra Community School, English is their second or third language. While teaching the students English literacy and numeracy is a priority, strengthening their knowledge and use of the local language Walmajarri is important to preserve the cultural heritage of the Kadjina community.

Traditionally, the Aboriginal people passed down their stories from generation to generation through word of mouth and by reading land formations. Wulungarra Community School has published over thirty-five illustrated children’s books in Walmajarri complete with translation summaries in English. All of the books are produced using the school’s computer system with Yangkana Madeleine Laurel and Paipayi Mabel Laurel doing all the illustrations. The students have also completed several publishing projects.

There is more teamwork going on to promote literacy at Yakanarra Community School. The Australian Teachers of Media Association have awarded the national award for Best Indigenous Resource to Walmajarri Language teachers Jessie Moora and Mary Vanbee. Jessie and Mary have produced an interactive CD-ROM on the Walmajarri language. This valuable resource was created with help from three other schools Wulungarra Community School, Kururrungku Catholic Education Centre and John Pujajangka-Piyirn Catholic School.

While there are many differences between the communities that the AICS operate in, there is one common thread linking all the various Aboriginal cultures throughout Australia. The importance of looking after and maintaining a spiritual connection with the land is central to the Aboriginal people who see themselves as being one with the environment. It is interesting to note that some AICS participate in the Edible Gardens and Healthy Eating initiatives as part of the greater Thriving Communities Program run by charitable organisation the EON Foundation Inc.

The Edible Gardens program enables regular access to fresh fruit and vegetables and has a wealth of other benefits for participants. The students get hands-on experience growing, harvesting and preparing the fresh produce while learning about bush tucker and medicinal plants from any present Elders. This is another valuable opportunity for the students to learn more about their culture.

At Kulkarriya Community School, the Edible Garden grows a variety of plants including chillies, tomatoes, boabs and sunflowers, with photos posted on Twitter. This garden is an outdoor classroom for the students who can reconnect with the land in a positive way and can have pride in eating healthy produce that they grew themselves. Kulkarriya Community School was founded in 1978 on Nookanbah Station in the Kimberley Region of Western Australia. While classes were initially held inside Nookanbah shearing shed, today Kulkarriya Community School is very active on Twitter! Technology like social media goes a long way toward bridging the gap between the remoteness of Kulkarriya and the wider world.

Visitors help to bring the outside world in at AICS and engage the students in their learning by offering a cross-cultural perspective. In a program headed by Jan Dayman, students at Yakanarra Community School learned how to create their own batik bags and fabric swatches. Batik is a traditional Indonesian method of dyeing and decorating textiles. After the students created their own designs on fabric using molten wax, a large vat of dye and an open fire was used to bring their creations to life. Students took turns stirring the vat and had the opportunity to display their finished designs at the Matso’s Gallery in Broome.

Students at Rawra Community School are proud to be broadcasting Radio Rawra 105.9 FM to the local Punmu community. The broadcasting system is proving to be an exciting and effective educational resource with the students playing songs, writing promos and interviewing special guests. One memorable guest was Kevin Caton, the newly appointed Manager of the Department of Indigenous Affairs in Pilbara. Kevin is a retired AFL footballer and used to play for the West Coast Eagles among other teams. Together with their teacher Kathryn Ferguson, students Amos Simpson and McKenzie Rogers conducted an interview with Kevin who offered some fascinating insights into his job and his time spent playing for the Eagles.

Whether they are gardening to produce a bumper crop of vegetables or broadcasting over the airways, AICS work hand in hand with members of the community to help create a better future. Students at Wulungarra Community School have created educational videos to help address social problems in the local community. Using puppets as the main characters, the students worked on the scripts themselves tackling issues like smoking, alcoholism and drug use. The videos were filmed by David Batty of Desert Pictures and are available for viewing at any time. All of the past and present projects at the AICS are a testament to what potential Aboriginal students have and what they can achieve.

Indigenous education is a complex issue that has been the subject of intense debate inside and outside of politics for decades. A quick Google search reveals page after page of sobering statistics and attempts to explain why so many Aboriginal students are failing to flourish academically. Is the mainstream school system out of touch with the needs of Aboriginal students or should the students be taking more responsibility for their learning? Does the fault lie in the hands of the government for creating Aboriginal communities where students feel as if they have no future prospects beyond Centrelink payments and jail? Are there too many teachers with outdated attitudes towards Aboriginal students and their ability to learn? Do the problems start within the family home before the children even start school? Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal figures right across the board from highly respected Elders to leading academics, teachers and parents all have different answers on where the problems lie and how to shine a light on the issue.

AICS are aiming to create sustainable change and turn challenges into opportunities. Although AICS have significantly less resources than the average public school, the teachers do the best with what resources the schools do have to educate the students. One of the most valuable resources a school can have is a strong connection with the local community. That connection forms a foundation for the students to excel, not only in school but also in life. AICS are inspiring examples of how Aboriginal students can be an active part of their education and achieve results worth celebrating. Rather than being a handout, AICS are an empowering step towards a brighter future for Indigenous education in Australia.

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December 19, 2018, 5:30 PM AEDT