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From Africa to Melbourne: the story of a very special school

Volume 9 Number 1 January 14 - February 11 2013

Being a young African woman in Melbourne is not easy, but a small school is making a big difference in these women’s lives. Catriona May meets the Master of Teaching candidates helping out.

It’s 11am on a sunny spring Monday, and 17-year-old Fatima from Somalia is reading about Gandhi. Her tutor patiently points out each large type word on the small page, encouraging her to break down those she doesn’t know. It’s slow progress, but Fatima perseveres, learning that when Gandhi lived in South Africa, Indian people were denied the rights of white people.

“That’s not fair!” she says, surprised.

Fairness – or, more accurately, a lack of fairness – is a familiar subject for most students at the River Nile Learning Centre. As young African refugee women, these students face incredible barriers to learning. But this very different school is giving them the second chance they need, providing childcare, one-on-one tuition and a safe haven. 

In recognition of this work, a new scholarship has been set up for Master of Teaching candidates to research an element of the centre’s education program, and produce a practical report suggesting refinements and improvements.

Director Judie Bainbridge has been working with the centre since its early days in a Footscray church hall.

“Last year, when we did testing, not one of the girls knew the name of a ruler or what a millimetre was,” she says. “Some had been in Australian schools all their lives. It’s pretty devastating.”

The centre’s students face many complex challenges, and mainstream education has failed nearly all of them.

“They have all have missed out on basic building blocks for literacy and numeracy,” Ms Bainbridge says. “They are being let down by the system.”

Every staff member at the centre, which is tucked into a few rooms in the St Joseph’s College building in North Melbourne, tells the same story. Young African women are placed in an ‘age-appropriate’ class in an Australian school, regardless of their abilities. Most have had disrupted experiences of education and some have never even been to school. While they may have spent some time in an English language centre when they first arrived in Australia, it has never been for long enough.

In a class with their Australian peers, the lessons start to go over the tops of the African students’ heads. They simply can’t keep up and ultimately grow frustrated and drop out. If they become pregnant, or are already mothers, then the chances of staying in school are even slimmer.

Master of Teaching (Secondary) candidate Matt Trotter has been working with the centre since October.

“English might be the students’ first written language and they’re learning it aged 14 or 15,” he says. “In the back of a Year 9 or 10 class, they can’t be expected to pick up what’s going on. Often they drop out – in Year 10 the academic expectations become too great.”

School can become inaccessible for Africans living in Melbourne, Mr Trotter explains.

“When you walk down the main street in Footscray you’ll see a lot of young Sudanese boys hanging around – at first glance you might think: Why are they not in school?” he says. “You don’t always realise that it is completely inaccessible to them – they would love to learn to read and write.”

Mr Trotter is researching the centre’s use of MultiLit, a back-to-basics, phonics based literacy course for ‘low progress readers’. Aboriginal rights activist Noel Pearson is among the program’s fans, driving its introduction across the Cape York Peninsula.

“[MultiLit] is not specifically designed for a refugee context or for kids with as much life experience,” Mr Trotter explains. “I am seeing how to best use MultiLit at the centre and adapt it to meet the needs of the students.”

The program is already helping students improve their literacy levels.

“MultiLit has made a huge difference to literacy levels,” Deputy Director Father Edgar says. “One girl, who was married at 13 and has two boys, was illiterate at the beginning of the year and now can read a book at about the level an eight year old could read.” 

Agum Maluach from South Sudan is another MultiLit success story, improving her writing and reading to such an extent she has landed a multimedia apprenticeship and a position at a Sudanese community radio station, starting next year.

The 19-year-old mother of three is bursting with energy and ambition. “I am more confident with my speaking and writing,” she says in nearly fluent Australian-English. “What I’ve felt like I could do is be a journalist – this is what I really want to do.” 

Abbey Wells, one of two staff teachers at the centre, says small group tuition has been the key to Ms Maluach’s success.

“Agum is bright and can keep up orally. Smaller groups enable her to attack texts – in a bigger environment she would have sunk,” says Ms Wells. “She has built up her confidence and drive now.”

Indeed, it is the one-to-one tuition offered by the centre’s bank of dedicated volunteers that makes the biggest impact on the students’ progress, Father Edgar explains.

“The schools are not able to address these basic literacy and numeracy needs – they can’t offer one-on-one tuition,” he says. “Literacy skills mean [our students] can settle into a new country. Without those volunteers, they will be in big trouble. They will be very vulnerable people.” 

The centre’s child-friendly environment is another important part of its approach – many students could not attend without it. Mr Trotter’s colleague, Master of Teaching (Early Childhood) candidate Namita Madan is researching the activities the centre offers children.

“It’s not a typical centre – it’s a different context,” Ms Madan explains. “I will be making practical suggestions they can really use. The benefits of making the centre child-friendly are huge – it’s really important.”

Ms Maluach’s three daughters (two of whom are twins) have a brighter future. All are proudly “Melbourne girls”, and their mother is excited about what lies ahead.

“For us, we’re starting life for our kids. They’re going to have a better life than I had before,” she says.