Bringing Indigenous students together
The Koorana Cluster is a group of three Queensland Catholic secondary schools. The schools are St Edmund's and St Mary's in Ipswich and St Peter Claver, at nearby Riverview.
Indigenous students are minorities in all three schools and, in the past, some have not wanted to identify as Indigenous. Today, there are about 50 identified Indigenous students across the three schools, and their families come from right across Queensland and even from other states.
David Harrison is Assistant Principal — College Mission at St Edmund's and previously taught at St James in Sydney, which is also a Christian Brothers School. He talks about what's happened in the last few years.
A few years ago we started looking at whether St Edmunds was really welcoming to Indigenous students and their families. It wasn't that we were discouraging, it was just that we weren't actively encouraging and supportive. And so we realised we had to really go out and get in touch with the Indigenous community if we were to build Indigenous enrolments.
At first, we had some Commonwealth grant money and we tried to get Indigenous people into the school to tell stories, art, to inspire the lads. We did that for a couple of terms, but it wasn't easy. We had to bring Indigenous tutors in on a sessional basis and it's difficult to ask them to just drop whatever else they're doing and come in. Some of the lads weren't engaged because there wasn't much continuity there, not much of a relationship.
And then I was lucky enough to stumble across Joe Kirk, who had been working in some of the primary schools in the area. Everyone I spoke to recommended him and I thought he'd be prepared to engage and challenge our kids but from a position where he actually was credible as an respected Indigenous person in the area."
After the first year the school funded Joe's part-time position itself because we believed that it shouldn't be just a 'one off' and we wanted him to continue. But then I was involved with the Brisbane Catholic Education Office and Rosemary Bell was the Chair of the committee and we applied for Commonwealth IESIP funding to contribute to the cost of keeping Joe in the school. And Rosemary was keen that more than one school be involved and that sat very well with me. The three schools came together and the cluster is one of the great things that has happened around here. So Joe now works full time for the cluster, the Koorana Cluster. He has been working through the local background and cultural history with us, and focusing on the information that we need to know about the students we're teaching.
Rosemary Bell is the Senior Education Officer, Indigenous Education in the Brisbane Catholic Education Office. Di Peachey is a Consultant, Secondary Indigenous Education based at the Ngutana-lui Cultural Studies Centre in Inala.
Rosemary and Di talk about the beginnings of 'What Works. The Work Program' in the Archdiocese of Brisbane.
As a team, we've been having a look at our strengths and weaknesses, in particular in supporting our 45 secondary colleges, and looking at the good things that we are doing with the students and some less successful things. So last year when the team received a package of 'What Works. The Work Program' we looked at it in terms of how it fitted in with what we were already doing. And the package enabled the team to accelerate the conversation with schools and accelerate the cluster developments across all secondary colleges. We're into that process now. Clusters can be the vehicle for 'What Works. The Work Program'.
We were talking about partnerships, and so is 'What Works'. It's about working together in networks and bringing groups together in combined wisdom, and that's the way we wanted to go, for all sorts of reasons. The Koorana Cluster had already started, so it was a natural for 'What Works'.
It helped to open up that conversation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
The Koorana Cluster was in place and Joe was there — the two absolutely essential elements. We started with some of the things in The Workbook: what are our issues, how do we look after our kids, how do we support them, what information is important to have and what's not, what cultural overlay do we need to know?
In looking at 'What Works. The Work Program', the Cluster spent some time thinking about the three general strategies proposed.
It became clear that cultural recognition and support was an important part of necessary action and that Joe Kirk was central to that. It was also clear that bringing Indigenous students together was the way to go.
So, tentatively, a dance group was formed. An Indigenous instructor was found and Indigenous students from the three schools were invited to take part. The dance draws on a variety of Indigenous and contemporary elements.
Natalie L'Huillier has been College Minister at St Mary's for less than a year. Previously, she had studied theology and had six years experience as a youth worker, including over a year in the Kimberley.
Natalie talks about what happened in 2003.
At first, we just tried to do some things with our Indigenous students as a group, and to do that we had to negotiate with teachers to take kids out of classes. The support of our Principal and Deputy was fantastic.
At first, only about eight girls identified as Indigenous, but each time we had an activity (like a visit to a cultural center or a cooking session) a couple more girls would put their hands up, saying 'hey, I'm Indigenous, too'. Joe was pleased about that and helped a lot. To be honest, I don't think this would work without Joe.
And then we started the dance group in the cluster, in just a small way but it's grown and it's still growing. The girls have developed a sense of excitement and a sense of looking forward to it. They've always been a small minority here, and not very visible in the school, but they're starting to stand out now, in a good way.
Feedback from Indigenous parents has been good as well and they're saying they've wanted this to be happening and they want to see where it ends up, how their kids can benefit.
When we talked with the students about what costumes they should wear, they said they wanted a 'traditional' look, so we worked with that idea and came up with something that suited everyone. That was another great learning activity.
Joe Kirk had this to say about the process.
When they start talking like that they're starting to talk about their spirituality and the things that they identify with, like the frog, the water lily and the water.
You start off like that, and then it goes on to tradition and culture, and then you bring in the literacy and numeracy.
In September 2003, the Koorana Cluster dance group performed in front of over 100 school principals at the Queensland launch of 'Dare to Lead', an ongoing coalition of schools, their principals and education organisations that is publicly committed to improvements in Indigenous education.
At the Dare to Lead launch
At the same launch, staff from the cluster took part in a workshop in which principals were able to find out about what has been happening in Ipswich. This wasn't presented as an expert panel, but rather as the beginnings that can be made in a situation that would be familiar to many of the audience.
As David Harrison put it in the workshop:
It's not just about dance though, it's about building relationships and what can be achieved after that.