There has been a school at Mt Margaret, 340 kms north east of Kalgoorlie in Western Australia since the early part of the last century.
Originally part of a Christian Mission, the school is now in the centre of a small Aboriginal community (between 50 and 60 residents) and caters for between 20 and 25 students all of whom are Aboriginal.
When Jenni Greenham was appointed Principal of the school in 2004, she had spent the previous four years in schools in the Central Desert Region of Western Australia, so she believed she had a “fair idea” of what to expect.
Jenni and her husband Peter are the only non-Indigenous full time residents in Mt Margaret, so by her own admission, she has had to tread carefully and be aware of the politics and sensitivities of the area.
“When I arrived to take up my appointment, I found a school which caters for K to Year 7 was a fairly unhappy place.
“For some reason the school had become involved in local politics and power struggles, and people involved with the school had taken sides and made judgments in local disputes.
“It was by no means a unique situation, but there was a general belief that the children were incapable of higher order learning.
“The community had little or no positive interaction with the school and it was clear that parents believed that teachers believed that the students were there to be baby sat…not to learn.”
Aboriginal English is the first language of most of the students, but there are some small cohorts for whom Ngaanyatjarra or Wangkatha is their first language.
The traditional language, Wangkatha, is taught as a subject.
While Mt Margaret is a “dry” community, Jenni acknowledges that there were real problems with alcohol being consumed “in the bush” outside the community’s area of responsibility.
In 2005 Jenni heard Chris Sarra make a presentation at a professional development course at Yulara.
“I fervently held the belief that Aboriginal children were just as capable of learning as anybody else, so hearing Chris talk at the Professional Development Day was like a window opening for me.
“I had these beliefs which I thought were on the right track, but up until that point nobody seemed to share them with me. Nobody had validated them for me”
However it wasn’t until 2007 that Jenni was able to attend the Stronger Smarter Leadership program.
“It really opened my eyes.
“It wasn’t about believing that Aboriginal children could learn….I knew that. It was about my own personal development.
“It was about recognizing that we’d been arrogant in our dealing with the children and the community.
“During the course we did a role play which showed us just how much personal baggage everyone carries.
“Failure to recognize that baggage in yourself and others, blinds you seeing the reasons which cause behaviours.
“If you see kids chucking rocks, it’s easy to say they are just bad kids chucking rocks. The reality is that the behaviour may well be the result of abuse. You never see the abuse, just the manifestation of it,” says Jenni.
“How kids live their lives away from school, impacts on the school and our baggage compounds the stress for the kids.
“I wasn’t clear about that before the Stronger Smarter development course and that led to a level of arrogance.
“The course changed me. It empowered me to go to another level with the expectations of all stakeholders including myself. The changes have been subtle, but they did give me a greater level of understanding. It widened my vision of the world and of my role.”
Jenni says she has always been a strong adherent to the idea that school attendance is directly aligned to performance.
‘We’ve been able to demonstrate to parents and the community that by establishing a learning plan for each individual child and by encouraging them to come to school every day we are able to significantly raise performance levels.
She cites an example of an 8 year old student who had a reading age of 6.4 years.
In year 5 and after two years, the same child’s reading age was six months ahead of her chronological age in terms of reading. She was in the top 25 per cent in the state.
Jenni firmly believes that one of the reasons for that dramatic improvement was the 99 per cent attendance of the child during the two-year period.
She says that similar, if not quite so spectacular, results have been recorded for other children “right across the board”.
“One cohort of Year 4 kids was 4 years behind in reading. By year 5 (with a 70% attendance rate) they were 3.5 years behind. By Year 6 (with attendance up around 95 per cent) that had been reduced to just 2.5 years.
“In the first semester of 2009, 100 per cent of our students in years 3 to 7 had attendance of 94 per cent, ” she says.
With the improving attendance figures comes growing pride in the school.
“It used to be the case that the school was regularly trashed,” says Jenni
“I suppose we are regarded as strict by some people, but the reality is that we have codes of behaviour which all our students seem willing to accept.
“The result is that in the last 4 years there has been absolutely no trashing of the school, while the kindergarten next door, is regularly rendered unusable by vandalism.”
“When we needed to repaint the school, everyone was involved in the decision making to choose the colours and everyone worked on the project. In that way everyone had ownership of the final result.”
We are young and Aboriginal. So come and listen to us cheer. We all aim high and look to the future. Respect- we’re proud. We’re from Mt Margaret
We come from Mt Margaret. A small ambitious school. Our people came from the desert. A strong and proud black race.
We built our homes, we built our school. We now rate with the best. We take on any challenges. We’re from Mt Margaret .
We are young and Aboriginal. So come and listen to us cheer. We all aim high and look to the future. Respect- we’re proud. We’re from Mt Margaret.
(To the tune – We are Australian)
The same principles were used in the writing of the School song.
“When Chris Sarra came to visit us, he spent a great deal of time in a workshop with the kids and the staff writing the song. The end result is that everyone now has ownership of it.”
As part of its engagement with the community and in particular with the business community, the school has developed a system of self-auditing.
“Whenever our students go on a visit outside the school, or when we have visitors we ask the host or the visitor to fill in an audit of our behaviour.
“We are sure to point put that we want the audit to be honestly answered so that we can address issues which may arise.
“The audit results are then put on display in the school so everyone can see how we are perceived in the community.
“The kids are particularly proud of the results they achieve and know they are liked and respected within the community.”
Mt Margaret has established a lunch program for all students.
“The makings are provided by a mine 35 kms away and the work is done by parents. We don’t believe that making sandwiches is part of a teacher’s job.
“When we started the scheme it was really difficult to get parents to come to the school, but they saw how proud their kids were when they came to the school to help and now it’s not a problem.
“Seventy per cent of the community here has diabetes, kidney disease or is overweight.
“That’s not the case among our students. “There’s no junk food allowed at school and we have fit and healthy kids although the are monitored once a term by a visiting Remote Area Health Clinic.”
As in all schools, Mt Margaret does, from time to time, have to deal with bullying and teasing that gets out of hand.
“We are a small school so it’s not a major problem,” says Jenni.
“However it’s important that we nip it in the bud so we have taught strategies to deal with it.
The kids have a mantra: “Hold on to your power”.
“That, together with a program we did early on in the piece on anger management, tends to diffuse most situations.”