Schools Building a new school community from the ground up

Dah Moo and Louise Holley with students at the Karen Learning Club. Photo: Meredith O'Shea.

One Werribee primary school has opened its doors to Indian dance classes, Iranian mothers groups and English conversation sessions, to build a community.

On Tuesdays after school, while most kids are scampering around the playground or heading home, there’s a hive of activity in the community hub of Wyndham Park Primary School. Fifty kids pack into the Karen Learning Club for lessons on the written language and culture of their parents.

For multicultural aide Dah Moo, who runs the class, it’s “the best job” she’s had since moving to Australia as a Karen refugee herself. “For these children to learn language and culture, it means they will not be losing their identity and their relationship with their parents,” she says. “It’s important. I really love to do this.”

If the consistently high student turn-out is anything to go by, the feeling is mutual; some students even come from neighbouring schools. The club is held in the school’s designated “community hub space”. Think: Indian dance classes, Karen playgroups that double as English conversation classes, Iranian mothers groups, multicultural cooking classes, free boxing sessions, parenting workshops, maternal and child health clinics… and the offerings are growing.

Teachers, parents and multicultural aides work with students to learn the language and culture of their families. Photo: Meredith O'Shea.

Teacher Louise Holley was hired as community hub coordinator to create stronger links between the school and the community – and the results are astonishing. “Families love it. We have all the different linguistic groups coming together – Karen, Chin, Indian, Iranian, Vietnamese and English. It’s fabulous.”

For Louise, the hub provides an important opportunity for families – many of them newly-arrived refugees and migrants – to integrate into the school and, ultimately, their local community. “We often say that we enrol the whole family, not just the student. We know from all the research that children succeed at school if their parents are partners in their education, so building that community and parental involvement is just as important as teaching literacy and numeracy.”

Louise runs a Parent Learning Walk every term, sharing what the children get up to in the classroom every day. “I once had four parents who’d never been to school themselves, having grown up in refugee camps in Thailand,” she recalls.

She also runs classes for adults, spanning everything from reading to technology, as well as one-off events aimed at breaking down barriers between teachers and parents.

“I asked our Karen community to share their culture with the teachers, and they cooked up a huge feast for everyone,” she says. “I met the teachers downstairs beforehand and said, ‘I want you to talk to the parents and come away knowing at least one name’. Then, tomorrow morning at line-up, go and say hello to them.”

The night was a hit. “I had a few Karen parents tell me afterwards that they’d never met or spoken to a teacher before. It was so powerful and so simple: sit down, have some food and talk!”

Louise works with two multicultural education aides, Dah Moo and Mark Kunoo, to assess community needs, facilitate programs and match people up with services. Karen parents can come in and seek help from an aide with everything from filling in an excursion form to paying a parking fine.

“That help and support extends to all parents,” Louise adds. “If they’re Iranian or from another language background, I will organise an interpreter and that’s a free service for them.”

“The most important thing is having a dedicated community hub coordinator role that is valued and supported by leadership, and having people like our amazing multicultural education aides to strengthen community relationships. That takes time, it doesn’t just happen.”

The cross-cultural learning goes both ways, and Louise is conscious of the importance of educating the teachers as well. “Last year I was floored when I had a really capable Karen mum ask me out of the blue, ‘What does ‘initial’ mean?’ She was talking about the take-home reading that she was meant to initial. I thought – how many other parents must be struggling with things like this? Without understanding the language challenges, a teacher might assume that parent just never bothers to sign the reading.”

The school’s focus on community extends beyond the hub space. Wyndham Community Education Centre runs the school canteen, Saffron Kitchen, which is staffed predominantly by refugees studying for food handling certificates. They serve vegetarian meals and snacks to the students for $5 a day. Some Karen families adopted the community garden on site, handing out fruit and vegetables to other parents after school.

“That just started from one parent who had the initiative to get it going,” says Louise. That, she says, is the ultimate goal: “To build up parents to be leaders and have greater input into the running of the space.”

Many would dream of having this kind of community space in their school – but for Louise, the program owes its success to the people. “I have visits from other schools and they’re jealous we have this space. But actually the most important thing is having a dedicated coordinator role that is valued and supported by leadership, and having people like our amazing multicultural education aides to strengthen community relationships. That takes time, it doesn’t just happen.”

For Louise, the community hub has had a ripple effect across the whole school that’s hard to quantify. “I just don’t see racism here. People get along so well. There’s this culture of caring which is pretty unique,” she says.

“One of the key signs we’re on the right track is when the children come back to visit the school to say hello and feel like they belong to it. We wanted to create a place that’s owned by the whole community, where everyone feels welcome – and we have.”

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