on 12 December 2017
Above: Pete's Place students with Dr Frank Malloy, Christian Zahra and Michael Whitton.
Serving over 765,000 students in 1730 schools, the Catholic education sector in Australia is as diverse as it is large. Executive director of the National Catholic Education Commission Christian Zahra wanted to give prominence to some of the unsung stories of schools "working at the edges" of Catholic education. He spent some time this week with inspiring Catholic school leaders doing outstanding work with vulnerable students.
In early December, Mr Zahra spent the day with national director of Marist Schools Australia Dr Frank Malloy to visit three Marist schools and programs in New South Wales.
As a former Marist student, having attended Lavalla Catholic College, Traralgon (formerly St Paul's College), Mr Zahra reflected on the impact of his own Marist education.
"One of the Brothers, Br Maurie Bambridge, spent many years working in Central Australia and taught us all about the Indigenous communities he worked with," he said. "It made me think deeply about the meaning and purpose of my own life. That commitment I learned from Br Maurie and other Marist Brothers to Indigenous communities and supporting disadvantaged people really stuck with me and has strongly influenced the work I've done, including working twice as CEO of Indigenous organisations in rural and remote Australia."
"St Marcellin Champagnat's mission was to serve the most vulnerable in society," he said. "We often hear the stories of excellence in Catholic education, and we celebrate our sporting and academic achievements, which is very important, but I wanted to highlight and celebrate some of the stories of schools that do amazing work with vulnerable students and go quietly about their work often without much acknowledgement."
Pete's Place, named after Peter Robinson who bequeathed the building in Blacktown to the Brothers, is run by the Marist's outreach arm, Marist180, and is an alternate pathway for young people aged 12 to 16 years who have disengaged from school.
The school accommodates up to 25 students whose attendance has been a constant challenge. Newly-appointed principal Michael Whitton introduced a one-off incentive program to encourage the students.
"Some of the typical educational approaches don't work for these young people, so we wanted to introduce the incentive of giving movie tickets to students who attended school regularly," he said. "I thought I would have to buy two tickets, I ended up having to buy movies tickets for over 20 kids."
"Prior to some of the changes, student attendance fluctuated day to day," said Mr Whitton who was previously the assistant principal of St Clare's Catholic College in Mount Druitt. "Now we have about 23 students and attendance, other than genuine sick days, is nearly 100 per cent."
Mr Whitton said the teachers use a therapeutic approach to support and engage students to enable their social, emotional and academic growth.
"I don't want people to see Pete's Place as a 'behaviour' school. We are working with young people who have been seriously traumatised in many ways. The behaviour that might bring them here is a symptom of other underlying issues like depression and anxiety," he said. "The difference is we don't give up on them. These young people are used to being pushed away and when they come here they aren't being pushed away. For many of them school has become their respite."
A personalised approach is the foundation of the Marist's new joint venture with Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta (CEDP), the Marist Learning Zone (MLZ), which will open to students in Mount Druitt next year.
CEDP's program manager Patrick Barrett said the MLZ will support students for up to 100 days while they are still enrolled in their mainstream school. The program will provide additional support with the aim of re-engaging students back into school or to support them to find another pathway through vocational programs, apprenticeships or work.
"We will be developing an individualised program for each student at MLZ because each one will have different needs," said Mr Barrett. "We will work with them, their families and teachers and create a program to best support them. Some students might be here for two weeks, others might be here for a longer time."
"We can't treat students the same; it reduces their life chances," he said. "We have to recognise the needs of each student, where they currently are in learning, and where they want to be so they are challenged beyond even their own expectations."
The program will be a support to schools in conjunction with other options like CEDP's wellbeing and counselling services. The students will be referred from their school based on a number of factors including chronic school avoidance.
Marist Brother Jonnel Sisneros, who has recently arrived from the Philippines, will be one of four Marist teachers and two CEDP staff who will work in the Marist Learning Zone which will accommodate up to 20 students at any one time. Located at CEDP's Aengus Kavanagh Centre at Mount Druitt the MLZ, for the moment, is almost empty of furniture.
"We didn't want to buy too much furniture to start with because we want the students to help us design the best use of the space," said Br Jonnel. "The space will need to respond to their needs."
The students will have access to a range of services on the site including literacy and numeracy support, a creative and performing arts program, the Jarara Indigenous support team and multimedia studios.
The John Berne School, located at Lewisham has recently undergone a major refurbishment that principal Br Mark Paul says has made a huge impact on the way the students think about themselves. With a capacity of 48 students, the Marist school was founded in 1998 and had 37 students enrolled this year.
"When we moved back onto the site earlier this term, the students were saying we are now a 'normal' school because we have the same resources as other schools," said Br Mark. "They felt like they had a certain standing in the community."
Creating the right kind of environment and opportunities is critical to student success says Br Mark who works with business partners and ambassadors like Labor politician Kristina Keneally to provide activities, excursions, immersion and work experiences. Students are involved in boat-building, sailing, artist and photographer in residence programs and one week of work experience each term in Years 9 and 10 to support the development of the whole person.
"Many of the students who come here have reading difficulties, so they misbehave in class because it's the easiest way to get out of school work," said Br Mark. "But the problem is not misbehaviour, it's a range of social and educational challenges that need to be addressed and we have to work with their parents who are often struggling too."
"Our work is to help these students tap into their gifts, which we do by exposing them to opportunities and creating an environment where they are respected and valued," he said.
The Marist charism lies at the heart of these schools and programs, but it is often not as explicit as teaching religious education. Faith is shared in a very practical way by talking about students' life experiences and creating moments of reflection for students.
"Young people need some quiet time to think about what's holding them back from school and participation in life," said Br Mark. "Faith is central to being a change agent in the world and there is a great thirst for faith with these young people, which is being made alive here."
For more information visit Marist180
, Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta
and the John Berne School