Schools Building a new school for a new community

Students enjoy the brand new playground at Saltwater P-9 College. Photo: Victorian School Building Authority.

Principal Jackie Daniali had big dreams for her new Point Cook school, engaging a diverse community in her inclusive vision even before the first brick was laid.

One of nine new schools to open around the state this year, Saltwater P-9 was designed to meet the needs of the burgeoning Point Cook population. “Starting up a new school is like giving birth,” says Jackie Daniali, laughing. “It sounds funny but that’s what it feels like.

“You attend to every bit of the school – from the uniform, to the subject offerings, to the furniture. When you see your vision come alive – when I stand next to the bike racks and greet the students every morning – there is a sense of pride that the vision’s been delivered on.”

In the mid-1990s, Point Cook was basically a rural area with a RAAF base and a population of around 500. These days, it’s closer to 50,000, with 13,000 families. More than half of Point Cook’s residents were born overseas, predominantly in India, China and New Zealand.

Students Edward Abala, Noah Thomas and Ozyrious Toamau-Cowan making the most of the athletics track. Photo: Supplied.

Jackie had big dreams for her new school-baby. Conscious of her diverse pending student cohort, she had read voraciously about the future job market and trends in globalisation.

“I wanted to provide an education that was internationally minded and underpinned by cultural inclusiveness, not tolerance,” she says. “I don’t like the word tolerance; people want to be understood and accepted, nobody wants to be tolerated.”

It was the kind of education that Jackie herself never had. Born in Iran to Armenian refugees, she came to Australia at 14, “having lived through a war, persecution, the whole thing.” When she arrived, she could barely speak a word of English and her school “just didn’t value” multiculturalism.

“I could have become quite bitter, but what I’ve learnt through my experience is there’s good and bad everywhere, and it’s my goal to teach kids to understand the different cultures, values and beliefs within their own community here in Point Cook, and beyond.”

“To make a school successful, you have to build relationships – social media was one way I could start by building a digital community.”

Jackie knew her vision would only be realised with the backing of her future parent community – and with no bricks-and-mortar school in which to bring them together, she found the next best thing. She turned to Facebook.

“I knew that to make a school successful, you have to build relationships – but the school wasn’t built yet and these parents didn’t know me from a bar of soap. Social media was one way I could introduce myself and start by building a digital community.”

Jackie’s approach worked; her school now has 150 students and 2,000 Facebook followers. Well before the doors opened, Jackie connected with parents by posting photos charting construction, uniform designs and digital surveys about the curriculum. She asked parents everything, from which language they wanted her to run (Spanish) to whether they wanted their kids to study the International Baccalaureate (97% said yes).

The digital engagement strategy not only democratised key aspects of her decision-making, but also helped build a grassroots community.

“Parents from diverse backgrounds get to know each other online first and then they meet up for coffee, get involved with parent club, and even volunteer their time at the school,” she says.

One such parent, who is in the military, volunteered to run the ANZAC Day service; another helped teach the children the Maori words to the New Zealand national anthem.

“We had parents crying they were so moved by hearing their language. And the Maori kids themselves were incredibly proud,” Jackie says.

“Parents love to see their kids learning about the world.”

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