The Access Program: Integrated curriculum, teamwork and a disciplined rapport
Swan View Senior High School was established in 1977 in the eastern suburbs of Perth and has about 780 students. About 140 of those are Indigenous, meaning that Swan View has the highest Indigenous population of any metropolitan government school in Western Australia.
In the local Nyoongar community, unemployment rates are high and health outcomes poor. Until 2003, educational outcomes were also very poor, with retention rates to Year 12 at less than 20%, chronic absenteeism and widespread disillusionment.
The development of the Access Program in 2003 has seen retention rates of Indigenous students to Year 12 reach 80%. The cohort of Indigenous students in the school now expects to have the chance to graduate with the Western Australian Certificate of Education (WACE).
The Access Program won the Australian Government High Achievement Award, Excellence in Leadership in Indigenous Education in 2004 and the Australian Curriculum Studies Association's Garth Boomer Award in 2005.
Geoff Holt was the first coordinator. He talks in detail about how it came about, and what happened.
I had learned a fair bit about cultural diversity and cultural differences in Tanzania and in Manchester, but in the first years at Swan View my contact with Aboriginal students was only if they happened to be in my mainstream classes.
Then, in 2001, I was asked by one of the AIEOs [Aboriginal and Islander Education Officers] if I would be willing to take on the position of Aboriginal Curriculum Coordinator. I suppose she asked me on the basis of the fact that I got on well with the kids. It seemed to me that there were institutionalised factors working against them, so I was pretty keen to take it on.
In 2002, there was a report around that talked about the unwillingness of schools to accept cultural difference, the lack of cultural affirmation and the possibility that Aboriginal students may well have different learning styles. It also talked about the legacy of forced removal from families, and the fact that that still has a lot of psychological impact on the students and family today.
I was seeing all this manifested on a daily basis. And I was observing that, out of 25 or so Aboriginal Year 11 students, only three or four were attending school on a regular basis, while the rest were an alienated group, just coming and going from day to day.
So I spoke to the AIEOs and to some Aboriginal parents and I started to ask some questions about why that was and why the students felt uncomfortable. And we organised what we called a crisis meeting for parents and students, where it became apparent that they just felt alienated in the mainstream. They felt they weren't being supported, the curriculum was irrelevant and they were bored. Read on…
Aboriginal and Islander Education Officer, Tania Cavanagh talks about her role in the Access Program.
I think the way we work together as a team is important, with the teachers and the AIEOs. When there are pastoral care issues that do arise they're more or less dealt with straight away as far as we can. I think that has a big impact. Because, if you don't, if you leave it too long to actually make contact with parents, then that's when real problems start.
We meet on a regular basis too, on a Wednesday now, and a lot of issues come up and are discussed openly. Acting quickly if there are problems is very important.
You need people who can have a real relationship with the kids and you have to be persistent. We get on the phone, we knock on doors, we don't give up easily. But we've built those relationships and kids and parents feel quite easily comfortable to come in and have a talk to us.
But the thanks come at the end of it. The extended Aboriginal families, that's where we get the thanks from and that's where the support for the program comes from. One of our students, who didn't attend much in Year 8 and Year 9, now comes every day because of this. She hurt her knee and her ankle and came to school on crutches. She said 'oh I've got to come every day'. We said 'yes, but you don't really have to go to TAFE if you're injured'.
When we had our awards presentation for the first year of graduates and parents we weren't sure how many would come. Anyway, we'd catered for a big group but I remember being nervous driving there, hoping more than a dozen would turn up. There ended up being about 250 people... kids, extended families, community people, everyone. And that was where some of the parents came up to us and thanked us for all those phone calls and stuff! Wayne has been working here for many years, and the Aboriginal workers here, we actually live and breathe the community, so we know all the situations that are occurring in the community and we bring that information in. Even what's happening at the weekend we know about, and if there are any situations that do occur we can be straight onto it.
Wayne Morrow, current coordinator of the Access Program, discusses the kinds of projects that have been undertaken by students.
The kids are involved in real life things. Last year, the Year 11 students organised a Community Youth Forum about health, for instance. One of the women from North Metropolitan Community Health came to see me and at the time suggested the idea. It's an issue in the community and this was a real opportunity to do something.
We put it to the kids and they were keen, although of course there are varying degrees of enthusiasm along the way. It took us twelve weeks all up to get it organised. But once it all happened, once it got there, all the kids were rapt because the feed back they got from the people turning up was nothing short of great. There were 28 students involved in the project and they invited other schools from Year 8 through to Year 11.
Although it was based in Health Studies, it was integrated through other subjects like English and IT as well. This year, we've done the same thing with a sports carnival as part of NAIDOC Week. There were two days of sport and then there was the Reconciliation Day or Harmony Day on the Friday. Those schools that want to send representatives along can do so, and there's a reconciliation walk. Again, this is all organised in an integrated way, meeting outcomes across subject areas.
Originally, we had thought about having another forum on a different issue, but we decided we needed something fresh. Right now, the Year 12 students who were involved in the Forum are making a DVD on alcohol, drugs and violence. It's an active thing where they'll act out a scene at a party where there's an assault. Then there'll be interviews with each of those kids involved, talking about the part they played and saying what could have been done better so that it didn't occur.
With integration, there are some challenges for the teachers. You really do need to get together and plan, to make sure all the outcomes are covered. And you've got to try and make it relevant, interesting and a bit of fun as well if you can and fit all that together. So I think that is really quite critical.
The thought patterns of the community of parents has changed. They've now seen two years worth of graduates and it's set the tone for what they expect from their kids. There's more expectation on them achieving.
Younger Aboriginal kids' expectations of school changed once it became apparent that the Access kids were still there, they were still going and it was clear that they were going to graduate. They saw the Access kids, alpha males some of them, staying on and succeeding and suddenly there's a critical mass scenario. And then they have the expectation that this is what we do, after Year 10 we go into Access and we finish at the end of Year 12.
For a while, we also got a great deal of publicity in the media, we had lots and lots of visitors and we won awards. That had an impact on the kids, who realised they were doing something significant, but also on the rest of the school.
The perceptions of other people changed when they finally started to see the results, and Indigenous retention rates surpassed those of non-Indigenous people within the school between Year 8 and Year 12. And then we attracted a lot of support that had been very difficult to achieve in the beginning.
When a program is successful, people always want to duplicate it. The Access Program worked very well in one context. But I'm not sure that just because something works in one place, it's going to work somewhere else as well. Thinking like that ignores all the critical factors, it's too simplistic. My experience is that it's about establishing what are the needs of that particular community, how you can engage people and how you can respond. That will lead to a different scenario in each case.
If I was in charge of a new program at a different school I would first have to do quite a bit of observation (and preferably participant observation) and a bit of research to find out what the issues are and how you can respond to those issues. You have to listen to the concerns of the community.
But it's got to be about high expectations, high standards, it's got to be based on respect and it's got to have integrity on a personal level. Once you lose that integrity my experience says that people in the community will see through it straight away.