Strong & Smart - Chris Sarra & Cherbourg

Can a dedicated principal reverse high absenteeism and low achievement in a short period of time? If the principal is Chris Sarra and the school is Cherbourg Primary (near Gympie in Queensland), the answer is 'yes'. Chris has a school with 257 students from kindergarten to Year 7 who come from a community where there are high levels of domestic violence, alcoholism and other social problems. He tells his students that they have to be 'strong and smart'. Lest they forget this, he introduced a uniform with that slogan sewn onto the shirt. "You don't have to accept that you are at the bottom of the pile - you don't have to accept the rubbish," Chris tells his pupils. He's a blunt talker. He has said of his program, "It's very confronting for white people who are educators of Aboriginal children, and I'm hoping that it will change their thinking and challenge their beliefs about what Aboriginal children can achieve in the classroom. As well as that, I hope it's confronting for a lot of Aboriginal children." When he arrived at the school, academic performance was extremely poor, with the number of children in Year 2 performing below expected levels in numeracy and literacy ranging from 80 to 100 per cent. The average period of enrolment for an ex-Cherbourg student at the local high school was nine months. "The Year 7 students left for high school...like lambs to the slaughter, with no idea about how to conduct themselves in a regular classroom and nowhere near the personal skills or the literacy and numeracy skills to survive? Most would drop out before the end of year 8 and disappear into the oblivion of society." Many people have heard about Cherbourg and Chris' success.

So, what is the program that has made the difference? Forget miracle cures - mostly it's hard work and attitudinal change. You have to, "shift the mindset that seemingly accepted Aboriginal under-achievement as normal, to one in which we all had to believe we could get better outcomes from our children," he said. "At Cherbourg State School we aim to generate good academic outcomes that are comparable to other schools around Queensland, and nurture a strong and positive sense of what it means to be Aboriginal in today's society."

In his first year at the school Chris announced his determination that poor student behaviour and under-achievement would no longer be tolerated. "As an Aboriginal person, I was disgusted at having to tolerate such poor student performance and outcomes, and, indeed, poor school performance. Clearly, if change was to occur, the school had to change its beliefs about what our children could achieve, and our children had to change their beliefs about what they could achieve.?" This included 'reprogramming' students who deliberately underachieved as a way to fit in, or because they didn't know of another way. Hence 'Strong and Smart' was born. Chris tried to stop children "aspiring downwards as some means of proving to their peers that they are 'Aboriginal'". The process of change was not without heartache. Five teachers and some teacher aides left the school inside the first 12 months. New teachers whose thinking was more in line with that of the principal joined the school.

Meanwhile, practical steps were taken to address specific issues:

  • Chris engaged with the powerbrokers in the community - community council, Elders, parents - to help forge a vision for the school, until there was a collective understanding of what each stakeholder expected from every other stakeholder.

  • Children started monitoring their own 'unexplained absences' as a class, which then had to be explained to the whole school at assembly. Every Friday, the class with the fewest absences won free ice blocks from the tuckshop. 'Unexplained absences' dropped 94 per cent in just over a year.

  • A school motto, uniform, and song were introduced. Students were assigned to keep different areas of the school tidy and litter free, all ways of expressing individual and collective pride.

  • The school maintenance contract was altered so that local Aboriginal people would be engaged to work at the school - providing another set of role models apart from teachers and aides.

  • An Aboriginal studies program was made integral to the curriculum from Preschool to Year 7, with studies focussing on the local area and occupying two hours per week.

  • The practical changes were very important, but just as important were the changes in attitude engineered by the won't-take-no-for-an-answer principal. "I would explain (to the students) that many children had left Cherbourg State School only to get picked on and walked on because they couldn't read and couldn't match the other children at the high school. I explained that we did not want to see them go down the same track because we knew they could do better."
Chris is now working towards a PhD in psychology at Murdoch University. His ability to alter the psychology of an apparently 'hopeless' institution has already been demonstrated. "As I reflect on the extent of the changes within the school, I think that the most important things I did was to believe in the people already at Cherbourg, and to be prepared to value what they had to say, to the extent that it truly influenced the directions of the school."

*This article has drawn heavily on "Young and Black and Deadly: Strategies for Improving Outcomes for Indigenous Students" by Chris Sarra, published in 2003 as Paper No.5 in the Quality Teaching Series by the Australian College of Educators, http://www.austcolled.com.au

Michael Winkler

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