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KODE schools in Victoria

There are four Koorie Open Door Education (KODE) schools in Victoria. These are, as the name implies, schools for Koorie kids - but the 'open door' aspect means that they are accessible to all students.

The KODE schools are operated by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous staff, and designed to cater for the particular needs of Indigenous students. Class sizes are small, and the schools span from Preps to Year 10. There is an emphasis on making students comfortable, with Indigenous community members (and especially relatives) welcomed into the school at all times. There is also consideration given to traditional learning methods; one example of this is peer learning, where older students might teach younger students such things as music or art.

However, just because credence is given to traditional ways, it would be quite wrong to think that KODE schools exist in some sort of time warp. For example, Glenroy KODE makes extensive use of videoconferencing technology. This has many functions, but the most obvious is that it allows the school in Melbourne's northern suburbs to link with other schools across Australia. There is a particular focus on using it for literacy exercises, which not only boosts ICT fluency, but also makes literacy learning fun.

Glenroy KODE school principal Barney Stephens observes that a major issue for his school is getting parental involvement when many of the parents have had negative educational experiences. "Cracking that shell is difficult," he says. On the other hand, "There is no individual or group memory of computer technology being used against Koorie people." Benefits that the students derive from the videoconferencing include: improved self-esteem, skills and confidence; motivation for literacy; development of technology skills; a real audience; formation of new relationships; creation of networks.

In the north-west corner of Victoria, Mildura's KODE school has a fluctuating attendance of between 60 and 100 students, most of them Koorie. There are major social issues for many of these young people. Principal Karen Modoo reports that 85 per cent of her secondary girls have experienced some form of abuse; 75 per cent of all students are living or have lived with carers other than their parents; and most students have first-hand experience of individuals committing suicide or succumbing to substance abuse.

"You ask yourself why some of these kids are struggling to learn, can't write, can't get interested in maths," Karen says. "It's fairly obvious: their working memory is already full." Apparently most people can only hold between five and seven things in their mind at any one time; if these students are preoccupied with life issues, it stands to reason that they won't have room for learning.

Against this difficult backdrop, Karen describes her staff as 'legendary'. They make allowances for the life experiences that their students are wrestling with, and respond with appropriate initiatives. Instead of pretending that fundamental social problems don't exist, Karen and her team work within the parameters that exist. Every Monday there is a whole school breakfast; the logic is that children are unlikely to learn if they have empty stomachs, so instead of starting the week with two hours of literacy work, it starts with some good food. Additional benefits are improved nutrition, a chance to demonstrate care, and the building of relationships.

After finding that parent-teacher nights were attended by as few as one parent, they have been replaced by Breakfast With The Stars. Once a term families are invited to the school for breakfast, the children are given a chance to demonstrate what they are learning, and parent-teacher conversations are held in a less formal way. Reports have been restructured to make them 'parent friendly', and students have been encouraged to self-assess.

Because many students come from families where inter-generational unemployment is a reality, Mildura KODE emphasises employment skills right through the school program. "Work readiness should be a 13-year conversation in schools, not just one or two years," Karen argues.

Mildura KODE is one of the 15 original project schools for Mind Matters. After two years of using the program, significant gains have been made.

Cultural activities including dancing (both traditional and contemporary), storytelling, art, bush tucker and Indigenous games are emphasised. The skills gained in these areas are gradually being showcased to the wider Mildura community, building self-esteem both for individuals and for the school s a whole.

Michael Winkler

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