A North Melbourne primary school is finding common ground between cultures by amplifying the voices of its students and families.
While lockdown has been difficult for many, the inhabitants of the Flemington public housing towers endured a more extreme version than most. Effectively sealed off from the rest of Melbourne at short notice, barricaded in by police and confined to small – and frequently overcrowded – apartments, the plight of some of Melbourne’s most vulnerable people touched many onlookers.
For teacher Sophie Hoffman, this hard lockdown felt very personal — these were her students. “Many of our families live in the Flemington and North Melbourne towers, so they were severely affected,” Sophie says.
“Just knowing the amount of trauma that many of our families had already experienced pre-COVID made that moment extremely difficult to witness. You just wanted to go and see them, and it was the only thing you couldn’t do.”
Sophie works at Debney Meadows Primary School, which caters for a small cohort of students overwhelmingly drawn from African backgrounds. It’s a school that functions as a frontline for multicultural Melbourne, helping to bridge cultural gaps for families that might otherwise feel cut off. During and after the hard lockdown, that point of connection became more important than ever.
“When the lockdown happened in the towers, we called every single family in the school and made sure that they knew we were thinking about them.”
“I think knowing they had a place to come to and share their experiences and frustrations within the school was important,” Sophie says. “Especially for the mums, many of whom were fulfilling a traditional role of looking after the children. When the lockdown happened in the towers, we called every single family in the school and made sure that they knew we were thinking about them.”
This focus on community runs through the school’s practice, which includes a number of parent-focused programs – including a weekly forum – and a particular focus on student-led learning. At the core of the Debney Meadows philosophy is the importance of giving agency to students and families who often feel powerless. “Our community needs to be leading our school in the directions that they believe are important,” Sophie says.
Given that a number of children in her class are from families with five or more children, school is one place where a child’s voice isn’t drowned out. In the classroom, valuing that voice means that students often get to decide how and what they want to learn.
“Each time we start a new unit or enquiry and we want to do it in a certain way, students get to choose how that’s going to look. In any teaching, I’ll just run with what the students are interested in. If I can link that back to what I want to teach, that’s the way it will go.”
Sophie says the students revel in the chance to teach others about their own lives and she has been a willing student. “I have learnt so much! We have a large Muslim community. It’s been a massive learning curve but also so interesting – finding out what values we share, how we celebrate holidays and how we can find similarities in things that might seem so different on the surface.
“I think a really big strength in our school community is understanding that you can come to Melbourne and not be from the same place and still build a community around you.”
A recent funding boost has allowed the school to hire a cultural liaison officer from a Somali background who works at the school three days a week, running programs with families designed to increase that common understanding. Indeed, it was a desire to understand – and a willingness to step outside her comfort zone – that led Sophie to work at Debney Meadows in the first place.
“The only way that we’re going to learn about those communities is by becoming part of those communities and being able to be an advocate and an ally – not a saviour. And to show the children that there are people outside of their own community who are willing to be there and help lift them up.”
While her kids are ecstatic to be back at school after lockdown, Sophie says watching the news coverage of the dramatic events at the towers also helped her truly understand the importance of the school to its community. “It was in that moment that I realised, ‘Oh, I’m part of that community too!’”