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Visit to Menindee
Recently I joined a group of Sydney principals and teachers – many from my electorate of Bradfield – on a visit to the small town of Menindee in far western NSW.
Over several years now Menindee Central School, a kindergarten to year 12 school which is 70 per cent indigenous, has been developing a partnership with schools in Bradfield including Lindfield East Public School and Killara High School. Each year students from Menindee come to Sydney, and 3 groups from Lindfield East Public School and a group from Killara High have a week at Menindee.
As part of the visit I joined a forum which discussed this relationship – dubbed the City Country Alliance – and the lessons which have emerged. Jane Dennett, principal of Killara High, observed that many of her students have much more familiarity with travelling to Europe than travelling to far western NSW. Brian Debus, the former principal of Menindee and the human dynamo behind this programme, spoke of the progress he had seen with some of his indigenous students over the years. Two confident young indigenous women, both senior students at Menindee, presented to the group about what their education meant to them.
Principals from other far western NSW schools spoke frankly about the successes – and the challenges – of providing education to indigenous students. One told me about how tough it was for a student who had been sent into the juvenile justice system – “juvvy” – to recover and get back on track. Another mentioned his school’s increasing success rate in getting indigenous students through to the end of year 12 – and noted proudly that this year an indigenous student was school captain, the first time this had ever happened.
An important element of the partnership is the remarkable artwork many of the students produce. Indeed there have been several exhibitions of their work in Sydney and Newcastle galleries. Mark Cepak, a Lindfield East parent, has been a champion of this, and every second year when the Menindee children come to Sydney there is an art show held at Deli in the Park in East Lindfield.
Andrew Stevenson, Principal of Lindfield East, has been a strong advocate for the programme and his school has worked closely with Menindee – both under former principal Brian Debus and current principal Daryl Irvine. Andrew believes that his students and school community have benefited significantly from their improved understanding of life in far western NSW, and from building personal connections with indigenous Australians.
A highlight of my visit to Menindee was a better understanding of the work the school is doing to offer students more employment opportunities – and to help the local indigenous community develop tourism and education products. For example, we were treated to a production of ‘Weeping Cloud’, a stage show dramatizing the life story of a woman from the local indigenous community, performed by children from the school accompanied by a local choir.
Next to the school Brian Debus and Daryl Irvine have built up the Menindee Enterprise Park, a tourism business built around two restored railway carriages, one an old first class sleeper and the other a dining car. These offer accommodation and meals, and are part of a complex with other buildings including a commercial kitchen and other facilities. This is an operating business with a particular focus on conference and group travel, generating revenue and, importantly, offering work opportunities in catering and hospitality for senior students. In fact much of the construction work was also done by the older students under appropriate supervision.
I had the opportunity to stay overnight and it was a unique and comfortable experience. Sadly I was not able to stay for the next day’s programme: a visit to the remarkable Mungo National Park, an area of historic significance with deep links to the local indigenous people. It is also home to the archaeological wonders of ‘Mungo Lady’ and ‘Mungo Man’, the remains of indigenous people believed to be close to 42,000 years old. Mungo National Park is one of the many cultural and scientific learning opportunities which form part of the Menindee experience offered to visiting school groups.
Joining this group at Menindee gave me a much better insight into the impressive work being done by the leaders and school community at Menindee Central School, to educate local children and to offer them a range of enrichment opportunities. As well as building job skills, for example, each year the senior students are taken on a trip to either Tonga or New Zealand.
While the City Country Alliance has clearly involved a lot of hard work and there have been some frustrations along the way, it has achieved something very significant. This programme has helped open the eyes of indigenous children from a small country school to understand something of the opportunities that the wider world offers; it has also allowed students from schools on Sydney’s north shore to come to know children from a remote part of Australia, many from a very different cultural background to their own, whom they would otherwise not get the chance to meet.
I was very pleased to see a significant number of principals and teachers from Sydney schools, as well as from a range of far west schools, there to learn about the partnership and see if they could find ways to build similar partnerships of their own. The strong representation from Sydney’s north shore – including Lindfield East Principal Andrew Stevenson, Beaumont Road Principal Malcolm McDonald, Killara High Principal Jane Dennett, Masada College Head Teacher Ryan Gill, and state Member for Davidson Jonathan O’Dea, was particularly pleasing.
In my view this is a model which offers significant benefits – and I hope to see it expand beyond its current participants over coming years.