Black and Deadly

by on Nov, Tue, 2009 in Articles, Stronger Smarter Stories | 1 comment

Paul Bridge

Paul Bridge. Principal, Derby District High School.

The kids at Derby District High School in Western Australia know exactly what it means to be ‘Black and Deadly’.

According to Principal, Paul Bridge to 468 Aboriginal students “Black and Deadly” means being “top notch”, “being in charge of your life”, “being proud”.

Located, just about as far away from the main population centres of Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne as you can get while remaining on mainland Australia – Derby District High School is the only secondary school in Derby which sits at the southern end of King Sound in the Kimberley Region of Western Australia, 220 km east of Broome by road and 2,500 km north of Perth.

Paul has been at the school for just over a year, having transferred from the Kalgoorlie Gold Fields where he had been an Area Director and Principal Consultant. “I wanted to go back to a school and work with kids. I also wanted to go back home.” Paul is from Halls Creek in the Kimberley Region, and was born in Derby.

“When I arrived at the school, the school had been going through a tough time.

“It’s a very diverse community with students coming from different home lives. The school, while having an established student population with regular attendance also has a large cohort of students that move between the town and nearby communities.

“In addition there are parents, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, who are very well educated and are highly motivated. Their children are, in the main doing well.

“For others, education is not so high on the priority list,” he says.

When Paul took up the principal’s position, he was the fourth person to fill the role in five years. This was particularly unsettling for staff, students and parents.

Prior to my arrival the previous principal had put a great deal of work in refocusing the school policies and procedures and laid the foundation for me to come in and build on the work he had carried out.

Paul had met Indigenous Education Leadership Institute Executive Director, Chris Sarra some four or five years earlier and the two had formed a strong friendship.

“I spent the first six months at the school looking, listening and watching how the place operated. It was a bit like hanging onto the side of a speeding train and looking in to see how the people within the train carried out their work. It was pretty exciting but also pretty scary.

“It was clear from feedback from staff that there were inconsistencies in the way we were catering for students’ needs. The ability ranges within each class were diverse which was challenging for teachers. I also believe there were inconsistencies in expectations in students’ abilities to learn.

“It quickly became very clear that a lot of that was caused by the high staff turnover and the staff supply problems.

“I did a lot of thinking and a lot of strategic planning in that first six months and at the start of the 2009 school year with the support of staff made some structural changes in the delivery of numeracy”

Paul attended the Stronger Smarter leadership program mid way through 2009.

“The focus on the professional learning was to deliver leadership development to school leaders in Aboriginal education, in changing the tide of expectations that Aboriginal students cannot achieve.

“We could no longer collude with the notion that underachievement is alright if you are Aboriginal and that it was  alright for Aboriginal children to be disrespectful, and not be responsible for their behavior.

“Some staff were not standing up and asking the hard questions about where we were going and why our students were not achieving their full potential.

“As an Aboriginal principal, I was impressed with the Institute’s message, and I identified with it in terms of teaching in schools across Western Australia.  The message was that we need to set high expectations and standards for students, and at the same time instill in students pride and respect for self, their own cultural identity, the school community and others.

“The messages didn’t come as a major surprise, but they did validate my own beliefs about what can be achieved by Aboriginal students.”

In a ‘think paper’ he prepared for the staff after the first phase of the leadership program Paul said:

“Derby District High School has a proud history in terms of the education of students over many years. We do not want to lose the heritage that already exists. However we, as educators, should be constantly building on the positives of these past traditions by creating an innovative and inclusive school learning environment for all students to succeed in a changing community and society. We are developing whole school approaches to make this happen. Examples include AGE Model Literacy & Numeracy across the school, Senior Schooling Pathways through school improvement focus areas:

  • Strong Leadership
  • Teaching and Learning Programs
  • Staff
  • School Community Partnerships

“However there is an area of work in relation to student self identity – being proud of who they are as well as being proud of being part of something special at Derby DHS. This means a common and shared understanding of our shared values:Diligence– unremitting in effort, hardworking, Courage– Bravery, boldness and Strength– exertion and endurance, quality of being strong, power.

“I believe our students need to be empowered and reinforced to take ownership and control of their own behaviour and reminded of the strong and smart choices they can make through schooling and at home. For some of our students they already have this constantly being reinforced by strong parenting support and values instilled by parents. However for other students we are starting from the ground up, which requires instilling high expectations that they can succeed, reinforcing and building their sense of self worth and mentoring and supporting them in making strong and smart choices

“Clearly, the Stronger Smarter program reinforced my own beliefs as well as making me reassess some aspects of my leadership that needed to change to make sure I was on the right track.

“It led to a re-assessment of our practices and a strong commitment to the principles that: ‘second best is not good enough’ and that ‘putting up with other peoples’ excuses’ was totally counter-productive.

“We needed to change the tide of expectations and I strongly believe that parents, teachers and students working collectively is pivotal to successful students and successful schools.”

As part of the change process the school has involved the local community and developed a strong pathways program including vocational training.

Specific students who are not on an academic pathway but are keen on a career in rural operations are offered one day a week working on a nearby cattle station and others are offered one day a week working at TAFE and visiting a mine as part of completing mining and infrastructure Certificate 1.

“These are re-engagement programs which are there to support our students.”

Paul has been at the school for only 18 months and it is too early to gauge changes in academic results. He has noticed behavioral changes.

However there is still a way to go. “Some of the kids still believe that being Aboriginal is to be second rate. We need to instill in them greater pride in who they are. We are focusing on continuing the proud traditions enabling students at Derby DHS to reach their potential.”

One Comment

  1. I read Paul’s letter and found it of great value to my understanding of his plight to build the students self esteem and target greater educational results for the students at the school- great read!

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