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  What Works - The Work Program

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Karama Primary School, Darwin

Supporting students in transition to secondary school


The context | The issue | The strategy | What happened?


The context

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Principal, Bob Hale, with pre-school assistant Tania Hill (left) and Sheree Ah Sam

Karama Primary School is in the north-eastern suburbs of Darwin. It has an enrolment of about 440 primary age students and 72 in its preschool. About one third of its students are Indigenous. As the school's Aboriginal Education Adviser Sheree Ah Sam puts it, 'This is a welfare area where there's a lot of housing commission homes. We have one street where the larger families have four bedroom homes. We're not saying there's four kids in the house. You could have anything up to twenty in the house, you're dealing with extended families here.'

Information on this page is drawn from an interview with Principal, Bob Hale, and Sheree Ah Sam.

More about the flavour of the school can be drawn from the handbook prepared by Bob for his staff.


The issue

Bob:

For a long time we were concerned about the dropout rate of our Karama kids once they go to high school. The majority of the kids are able to survive in the system and we aren't overly worried about them, but there's a significant number of them either dropping out or showing signs of poor attendance.

We set up a scheme last year that allowed Sheree to track our exiting Year 7 Indigenous kids from 1997 to 2000, and we found that the high school system appeared too rigid for quite a few of them.

They went into an environment that was foreign to them, going from extended contact with one teacher here to, say, nine teachers six weeks later at a high school. We try to counsel the kids and get them around to a way of thinking that they need to be responsible for their own actions, good or bad, and there are appropriate consequences. So they went from a school where the suspension mechanism is rarely, if ever, used, to high school environments where it's all too common. Once they're suspended they become typecast as troublemakers, and they can keep getting suspended until such a time as they drop out of the system.

It's survival of the fittest, that's what a lot of them have found out. If they miss one day they miss six lessons, that's six different teachers they've got to catch up on, and it's too much for them."


Sheree:

We also found a lot of the boys, it was mainly boys — late Grade 8, early Grade 9 — would drop out for two or three years and then try to get back into the system again. A lot of them had set goals for themselves and they realised that they had to have the education, but they become frustrated with themselves and frustrated with their parents, and it was sad because they were all good kids.

One thing I found is that the support from the parents does not change for the kid once they've gone to high school. A lot of people say — Oh, they are not getting the right support at home. If they were getting 90 percent attendance at primary school, and they drop out at Year 9, it's the exact same support. But the kids just hit this wall or the wall hits them. It's very hard.


The strategy

Bob:

The most important thing is to listen to the kids. If they're acting up, they're acting up for a reason. It might be something that's not happening at school, or something that's happened months before. Basically all the kids are good kids. No one's born a thief, or a drug dealer. You've just got to know what their background is.

Make them feel appreciated, that they are valued, that they see the front office as a safe place and a secure place and a place of friendship. There's little to be gained in being authoritarian with them because, in a lot of cases, they are quite used to that and they will respond quite negatively. The other thing is to get away from stereotyping. Each one of those kids is an individual, has individual needs, individual hopes and aspirations and expectations."


Sheree:

Show them the respect you want. The kids will respect you if you respect them. If you scream and rant and rave at a kid, they are going to scream and rant and rave right back, or they are going to put up that stone wall and you won't get anything out of them. Most of the kids, if you sit down and talk to them, just listen to them, let them tell you what's wrong. Just show them that little bit of respect. We get the one percent that don't, but their problems go deeper than anything you can ever touch."


What happened?

Bob:

Now is stage two of the project. Sheree spends four mornings a week at Sanderson High and the rest of the school week here. It's a sort of a bridge between the primary and the high school."


Sheree:

It's different all the time because we're dealing with kids and kids are different from day to day.

What I've been doing at the moment is going over term one's results with them, how they did academically. We found they failed French. I think that out of the sixteen kids that were failing, this was only one unit of work, the French. Two kids broke the barrier. Both come from families with two parents who have been together a long time, both are working.

A lot of the kids have fear. One of the questions I asked the kids was, how do you feel about going to high school, what's your biggest fear of going to high school? And it was the bullying. They thought they were going to be bullied.

But the majority of them have blended in really well. I see the kids from Karama over there, they've blended in really well, they're coping really well, but they still miss that one-on-one contact with one teacher.

They come and talk to me. It's not only the Aboriginal and Islander kids, but others who have been to Karama. They come in, if they have problems they know they can come and see me.

At the moment with them, they are not having big, big problems. The dropout rate with the 1997-1998 kids — they were a harder bunch of kids, they were sort of streetwise kids. They can't be tied into a classroom, they just can't be. This generation of kids that have come through now, the 1999-2000, they were the smart kids. They are at school for the right reasons and we are finding they are all still at school."


Bob:

Sanderson are currently holding a review of all their courses. They feel as though there might be alternatives that these kids can fit into more comfortably, they may be more user friendly.

The way to go might be to look at employing an Aboriginal male and an Aboriginal female shared between the high school and the feeder primary schools, a person who has had life experience, whether it's been good or bad. At least they've been there, done that, they know the hardships of growing up from their own experience and their own experience in a hostile world.

[About levels of success with the strategy ] I tend to look back on the gospels. The Lord picked twelve disciples and one of them turned out no good, so if we're doing eleven to one or better then we're in pretty flash company."

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