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Early childhood initiatives at Minimbah Aboriginal Pre and Primary School

Under the leadership of Dianne Roberts, Minimbah tailors educational programs to the differences, strengths and interests of each young child and utilises unique transition programs.

School: Minimbah Aboriginal Pre and Primary School is an Independent facility located in the Armidale area of NSW. Ninety-five per cent of the 85 preschool and 85 primary school students identify as Aboriginal. Many families live in poor conditions with a budget well below the average weekly income. The local community has various social issues, including: poor nutrition, alcoholism and substance abuse, dysfunctional family units, gambling and health issues.

Coordinator:
Dianne Roberts

History:
In 1971, Mrs Dianne Roberts, OAM, became the first Aboriginal Director/Principal appointed to the just-built Minimbah Pre-school. During the early 1990's Minimbah expanded with a Primary school on site as well. One motivation for opening the school was the number of local parents who felt their children were not ready for mainstream schooling due to hearing and speech disorders, often due to Otitis Media. Mrs Roberts continues to run Minimbah in all its capacities to the present day. Minimbah APPS has been a long-term active Dare to Lead member.

Programs/Strategies:

Specialist programs in place include:

  • Early Intervention
  • Family Support
  • Nutrition Programs and Advice
  • Health Services
  • Environmental Preservation

Literacy Support: There is a particular focus on diagnosing potential problem areas, as well as encouraging critical literacy, problem solving and the confidence and ability to put their own ideas in writing.

Indigenous Languages workshops - community members teach four main languages: Dunghutti, Anewan, Gamilaraay and Gumbaynggir

Stronger Families Project: Numerous support structures are aimed at strengthening the family unit. Every child's parent or parents is encouraged to participate in the education of their child. The school also visits the homes of participants to encourage and advise on patterns of care that best support early learning, and to build the capacity for the mother/caregiver in that task.

Twice weekly there are playgroup sessions for mothers and their children aged from newborn to three years old. During this time mothers come together and support each other though discussion and group activities. A team of staff, the head of which is a fully - trained midwife, offers advice and support and if necessary referral to other community services available in Armidale. Another objective of the playgroup is to take the opportunity to recognise any childhood illnesses among the children. Otitis media is common.

Minimbah staff sit down with students who have been behaving in a negative way (and often their family members) and try to find creative solutions to what is going wrong in the classroom.

The School has student groups which perform at community and civic functions. Students also visit local aged care homes about twice a year to perform. Each year the Primary group goes to Sydney to Currambena School to perform in the Reconciliation ceremony there. Singing and performing encourages Aboriginal children who have hearing deficits to listen carefully and they listen and perform better.

School readiness:
"It's important that parents and the teacher from the preschool go along to open days and meet the teachers for next year," Mrs Roberts says. "You need to give parents the opportunity and time to talk about things they want to ask. Let the school know about disabilities or any difficulties the child may have."

"For the children, we have pre-school activities that may be similar to the first year of schooling. We get them up to date with their numbers, they learn to write their names, learn to read their names. We work on things like getting their own shoes on and off. These are the little things that can open up doors for children so they won't feel outside the group."

Outcomes: "It was when I realised that I could set my own rules and boundaries that the fear of how to approach the whole program started to subside and I became more comfortable with my own decisions about the structure of how the school should be run," Mrs Roberts says. "Maximising the potential of Indigenous students presents a constant challenge to educators. Minimbah's philosophy is to provide an environment to allow each child's capabilities to flourish. Our process of individualization allows children to develop strengths to overcome weakness at their own pace."

Reflections:

"When we look at the culture side of it, we start by looking at every child as an individual. If we don't do that we put them into little groups and say, 'This is a group of Aboriginal students'. It is not just encouraging them to learn an Aboriginal language, or to do a painting in black, red and yellow. It is treating them as individuals and introducing cultural perspectives from that angle.

"When they first come into our three-year-old group here I like the children to find their own space, to find their own way. Let them run freely, let them enjoy the play, let them enjoy the activities."

"But while that is happening we watch them. We discover the sort of child they are. We identify things like speech difficulties. Then we give them knowledge, skill and positive attitudes so the students become responsible citizens."

"Our programs meet the individual needs in a safe and caring and productive environment. Some children might learn freely by looking at pictures. Most learn by touching, feeling, experiencing. There is a vast array of things that children can do."

"If we value Aboriginal culture and integrate it into the curriculum it will give the students the best of both worlds. The next task for us is to get parents more involved in the school system, and this is a big job," Mrs Roberts says.

More information: (02) 6772 4853 or www.minimbah.org

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