Seeing a gap in the education system for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, Beatrice Sheen took on an ambitious project to fill it. Gaitlin Ganter spoke to the Founding Principal of Redfern's newest school.
Educational disadvantage in the Indigenous community has long been a cause for concern, with around 60 per cent of Aboriginal children significantly behind non-Aboriginal children by the time they start Year 1.
Beatrice Sheen, a Gamilaroi woman from Gunnedah, understands having a limited education. After leaving school at 14, she began working in a factory. Married at 17 with a baby soon following, her young family, though filled with love, knew what it was to struggle.
But as a 38-year-old and eight and a half months pregnant, Beatrice enrolled in the first of three education degrees she would undertake at ACU, sparking a passion that would last the rest of her life.
“It was challenging, going to uni with three children and a baby on the way, but my family helped me, and it was wonderful,” she said.
Her most recent project as Founding Principal of Redfern Jarjum College (RJC), a primary school for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, meets a lifelong calling for Beatrice. Located in the inner-city suburb of Redfern in Sydney, RJC will be a school with a difference, with high expectations from all involved.
“If you don’t expect much, you won’t get much,” Beatrice said. “I’m going to make this school achieve everything we want it to, and make sure every student has the support they need to succeed.”
The curriculum and services at RJC are intensive and holistic, and designed to ensure each child receives a high-level of individual attention and support. The needs of the students come first, and to make sure they are fully met enrolment is capped at 20 children.
“Teaching Aboriginal students often requires sensitivity and knowledge about their cultural protocols - RJC will provide that,” Beatrice said. “The teaching, learning programs and life of the school will have an Aboriginal cultural perspective, and work with elements unique to our culture.
“The community, Elders and respected others will be empowered to pass on their knowledge, skills, stories and culture to the children - their involvement will be critical in the success of the college in Aboriginal ways, lore and tradition.
“We’ll be providing a range of services that are not characteristic of a typical school. For one thing, the college will be open all year. RJC also provides all meals – and some will consist of kangaroo, emu and crocodile meat, and other bush tucker where appropriate. The children will also get medical care such as dental, hearing, general health, and eye checks.”
Beatrice said the school would also have a focus on helping children with special needs or who are struggling with their education.
“Jarjum is the Aboriginal Bundjalung people’s word for children, and the new school is for Aboriginal children in the area who have slipped through the system or have fallen through the cracks.
“We target these children because they need a different approach towards their education to cater for their needs in a school setting. Most of the children at RJC will have difficulties because their literacy and numeracy skills will likely be way behind the rest of the students in the state.
“It will be a long day, 8am to 6pm, but I think this will be good for their wellbeing, keeping them busy and productive. After school will be family time, and no homework will be sent home. They won’t be trapped in a classroom all day either; we will have frequent practical excursions. I think I can confidently say most of Redfern will welcome our students into their businesses and their lives.”
RJC will take in its first cohort in 2013.
“We’re nearing the finish now but the establishment of the college has been a long process. The idea of the school came from Ailsa Gillett OAM, who has been working in the Redfern area for over 20 years.”
Ailsa put a proposal together and presented it to St Aloysius College, Milsons Point. In 2009, they responded with the offer to sponsor and run a Jarjum school in Redfern, and the Sydney Archdiocese handed over the disused presbytery at St Vincent’s parish.
“The location is central to the Aboriginal people of Redfern and beyond,” Beatrice said. “The old presbytery sat idle for more than 20 years and was in a derelict state - burnt, water damaged and looking miserable. But after being renovated and rebuilt, it looks beautiful.
Beatrice said it had been a demanding project but one she was delighted to be involved in.
“Funding is always going to be a challenge, but it’s just one more thing we will overcome. There are cultural challenges too, such as students being away for long periods of time when they go Back to Country. This may take days, weeks or months and if the student is not at school how can they learn? We are looking into distance education for those students to keep them up to speed.
“As for my role in it all, it’s an honour and a privilege, and an opportunity for me to make a difference - a very important difference.”