Schools Connecting in custody

Parkville College principal Matthew Hyde. Photo: Meredith O'Shea

Principal Matthew Hyde is opening a café. Well, not exactly. But Parkville College is collaborating with not-for-profit organisation Streat and the Department of Justice and Community Safety to open a sustainable café that will provide Matthew’s students with a chance to gain a bit of work experience.

That sort of experience is especially valuable for students of Parkville College – the nation’s only prison-based high school, catering to students aged 10–18. The café is the latest extension of the school’s founding ethos: to provide children in detention with a chance to change course and reconnect with the world outside the prison walls.

Matt has worked at Parkville College since it was founded in 2012. Back then, the initiative – a collaboration between the departments of justice and education – was distinctly small scale, with a mere six staff members, catering to a student population of 30.

“There had only been a TAFE operating here, so students in detention didn’t receive a proper education,” Matt says. “The trial worked really well, we could see the students were growing significantly in academic engagement and reconnection with school, and we grew to a model today where we run 52 weeks a year, six days a week and we have 190 staff.”

Although the academic program is rigorous and effective – students get an average of three year’s worth of reading growth packed into three months – it’s the reconnection that seems most vital to Matt. He says his previous gig as a primary school teacher at West Lalor Primary School showed him the importance of helping children from diverse cultural backgrounds find their place in the world.

“What was so beautiful about Lalor was the diversity in the cohort. We were trying to figure out ways to create a school that’s based on the child, rather than asking them to adapt to a school that’s not created for them.”

These issues of diversity and marginalised community are particularly sharp at Parkville because of the overrepresentation in custody of children from certain backgrounds. Matt says 60–70% of the students come from an African continent, Maori and Pasifika or indigenous background. 

Parent-teacher nights are a high-security affair… but building that connection has a powerful effect on student wellbeing

The curriculum at Parkville has been tailored to the specific needs of students who might feel shut out from traditional education – or feel a powerful conflict between the person they are required to be at school and the person they are expected to be at home.

Entering the school, you are greeted with colourful student art that addresses this culture clash, much of it identifying the unique strengths that come with a particular upbringing or identity.

Matt talks about wellbeing strategies Parkville has developed, designed to make the college a safe and supportive environment for students whose life has often been full of conflict and turmoil.

One strategy is to strengthen the teacher’s relationship with a student by making regular contact with their parents. The relationship between teacher and parent is a particularly complicated one at Parkville, where parent-teacher nights are a high-security affair arranged in conjunction with the Department of Justice. But Matt says building that connection has a powerful effect on student wellbeing and participation.

“If a child has a really good day, I might pick up the phone and say, ‘I’m teaching Mark at the moment. He’s come to class three times today and he’s done this, this and this… I just want you to know you can be really proud of him and he’s using his time in custody well.’ If you do that on Thursday, then when that student comes to school on the Friday, they’ve got a kick in their step because for the first time in ages their parent said, ‘Hey, well done!’”

Of course, this kind of intense connection between teacher, student and parent can put additional pressure on staff who are already dealing with an unusually stressful, high-stakes classroom environment. Parkville has a specialised support program for its staff, where teachers consult with three staff psychologists and talk about how they can avoid taking trauma home with them.

“It’s good for them to be able to talk to someone and hear that when a kid pushes back, it’s not because you’re not doing the right things or haven’t done your prep; it’s about the things the child is bringing to that situation,” Matt says.

The AEU played a massive role in trying to make sure everything was safe and supportive.

The role of the AEU sub-branch is particularly important in such an unusual setting, he says, both in terms of supporting staff in an often extreme situation and in helping negotiate complex staffing arrangements with two government departments.

“A couple of years back, after the riot here, they sent a whole lot of our kids up to an adult prison,” Matt says. “The AEU played a massive role in trying to make sure everything was safe and supportive so our teachers could walk into an adult prison and uphold the education of those children.”

As principal, Matt splits his week between Parkville and the Malmsbury campus – where older boys  and young men are sent after sentencing. The college has five campuses in total – two within youth justice centres, two within secure welfare services and one flexible learning centre. He still tries to spend as much time in the classroom as possible. When I ask what’s kept him in such a high-pressure environment for the past eight years, his answer is simple.

“The children,” he says. “There is no child that ends up in custody because that’s where they want to be. Most of us, myself included, were fortunate enough to have parents to drive us to swimming lessons or football training, someone to pick us up every day from school and to give us a packed lunch – these are just some of the things that our students did not have.”

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