Young, Black and Deadly

by on Nov, Tue, 2009 in Articles, Stronger Smarter Stories | 0 comments

Donna Bridge

Donna Bridge. Principal, Kalgoorlie East Primary School.

Many, many times during her five years as principal of Kalgoorlie East Primary School, Donna Bridge, has said: “That’s it. I quit. It’s all just too hard.”

She hasn’t thrown in the towel and her school of 81 students in the West Australian Gold fields is now a leading example of just what can be achieved with perseverance and faith in the ability and determination of Indigenous children to meet high expectation and standards.

As part of the first group of school educators to undertake the Stronger Smarter Leadership Program at Cherbourg, Donna was one of four West Australians.

“All of them are still involved in education, but I’m the only one who is still at my original school,” she says.

“When I arrived at the school in 2005, the place was absolutely chaotic.

“There was dissent among the staff. There was absolutely no consistency in teaching and discipline and as a result the kids were feral.

“In reality, we weren’t a school, but rather a baby-sitting service for the kids who did come to school.”

In 2006 the school was 100 years old and its motto was “Endeavour Forever”. It was a “Level 3” school, which meant that it was a posting for new principals.

“This in itself led to problems,” says Donna. “The school was a stepping stone to further promotion so principals came and went, usually within a period of about 12 to 24 months. There was no consistency and no sustainability of programs.

“Literacy and numeracy levels were really poor, although the statistics didn’t necessarily reflect that. I would not be surprised if there were instances of teachers helping students with literacy and numeracy tests to boost scores.

“The school was providing lunches, medical intervention and transport where they were required.

“Our kids travelled from all over Kalgoorlie/Boulder and were bussed into school and because transport was dependent on a single 22 seater bus they were arriving anywhere between 8.00 am and 9.45am and leaving anywhere between 2.15 pm and 4.00 pm.

“No kids were getting the whole school curriculum.”

Through surveys parents made it clear that they did not believe the school was a safe place. Teasing, bullying and rock fights were the norm.

“It was also my first principal’s role, and some staff were the most difficult group I’d ever encountered,” she says.

However, Donna says she came to the school with three abiding philosophies –

Aboriginal children can learn

A school is a reflection of the society in which it exists

Quality teaching programs can and do make a real difference.

“I also understood that change takes time, and while I knew that new approaches were needed, I sat back to get a feel of what the school was really all about. I did not want to be one of those principals who makes change without knowing what really needed to change.”

“What became clear very quickly was that the school was in crisis,” she says

“I needed to change the attitude of the staff, of parents and the community as well as the attitude of the children.

“I had a sense of what I needed to achieve with the children and changing the attitude of the student body was quite exhausting. I introduced the principles of restorative justice and made all students responsible for their own actions. Some conversations were had over and over again, but the children needed to see that I was serious about them and wanted them to learn. The message was constant, you are responsible for your actions, and if you only know one way of behaving, I will teach you a new way and give you a new bag of tools, and then I expect you to use them at school.”

“Changing the attitudes of staff, parents and the community was much more challenging, but identifying my support networks and finding those who would help me over the hurdles kept me strong. They often helped me to think about things in a different way. When you’re in it, you can become so absorbed by the little things, that you need time and perspective to see the big things too.

“I met with every single family in the school and asked them to support me as the decision maker. Most accepted that proposition and that was the start of a long process,” Donna says. “I was feeling my way. It was a case of ‘fake it till you make it’.”

“Ultimately, the community did back me and we seem to be coming out the other side.”

Donna says the school now receives good support from many in the community. But says it must be remembered that Kalgoorlie is a mining town and that racism is common.

The problems have by no means all been fixed. Poverty is a very real issue and transport to and from school is a daily problem.

“To some in the community we are not a real school. They don’t see the value in what we do. But there is also a lot of good will and support, you just need to find your allies and sell your message”.

“This is particularly true among those who see the distinction between ‘upper class black fellas and lower class ones’. We fall squarely in the latter category. Many of our students live in real poverty. It is interesting in conversations we are often told how good a job we are doing, but they wouldn’t send their children here. That’s ok because it is all about choice, but we provide a service for a real need in the community, and we make a big difference.

Donna recognises, however, that “it is up to us to change people’s opinions and to show them what we are all about”

One of the first projects she undertook after the Stronger Smarter Leadership Program was to change the school logo and its motto. The logo now features a returning boomerang and black and white hands and the formal motto is Respect and Responsibility. The promoted motto is Deadly and Smart which celebrates being ‘Young, Black and Deadly’ and the school undertook a strong marketing campaign to explain it to the community.

“Being deadly means that you’re proud to be Aboriginal and that you can achieve whatever you want to achieve. The smart part is about doing things smart…being as smart as every other kid in every other school. Achieving your potential and making the most of the opportunities you’ve got.

“While our kids don’t necessarily fit in at other schools, they certainly feel valued and proud here at East Kalgoorlie. Their pride is reflected in attendance figures. “Attendance for some students has risen from less than 50% to 70% and that is a huge shift,” Donna says

“Because of their circumstances, many of our kids come to school already disengaged from school. We have 25 kids enrolled in years four to seven and only three of them have been with us since 2006.

“Its our job to get them engaged. We do this by encouraging all children in years four to seven to be role models. They see themselves and we see them, as leaders. Every child in year’s four to seven is given responsibility and we expect them to fulfill those responsibilities.”

The same is true of the school council. The community realizes that it has a voice. They participate and support the school. They are keen to develop a school community agreement to ensure that their voice continues when there is a change of leadership.

Reflecting on the Stronger Smarter Leadership Program and her leadership, Donna shares her insights…

“Stronger Smarter helped me find my way again and focus on what I really believed about being Aboriginal and learning successfully at school. It helped give me the strength and sense of purpose to navigate a way through what seemed like impossible obstacles to become recognised as a Dare to Lead national school of excellence.

It taught me to always have a moral purpose to your leadership and you will always succeed in the end because you are doing things for the right reasons. I no longer want to quit, I love my job, my school and the kids, East Kalgoorlie is a great place to work.”

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