Innovative, flexible education is the key to helping ‘at risk’ young people complete their secondary education at Queensland’s Pirlirrpa Education Program, writes Faye Michelson.
There’s more to learning than the three ‘Rs’ in any school, but it’s particularly the case with the small group of teenagers who attend the innovative Pirlirrpa Education Program at Spring Hill, Brisbane.
Run in partnership with The Salvation Army’s Youth Outreach Service and St James College, Pirlirrpa gives young people who are ‘at risk’ an avenue to overcome crisis and complete their secondary education. The Salvos provide the venue and caseworker for each student while St James provides the teachers, curriculum and IT support.
Maree Dalby, the program’s health and wellbeing manager and student caseworker, says students’ wellbeing is as important as their schooling.
‘They come to us because they have faced significant barriers in a formal education system,’ she explains.
‘They may experience domestic violence or dysfunction at home. Their family might have moved around a lot, leaving significant gaps in their education; they could have a physical disability or be diagnosed with autism or ADHD.
‘We achieve success because we meet them where they are and travel their journey with them.’
Flexibility is a key to Pirlirrpa’s success. While the program provides subjects and electives, including VET certificates, it also focuses on guiding students through the challenges and barriers that have kept them from school in the past.
‘We allow our young people to be individuals. We encourage them to identify their strengths and the things they are great at and allow them to shine,’ Maree says.
‘Our aim is to have an education system that allows our students to express and develop who they are to become the best versions of themselves.’
Maree, who has worked in alternative education for 12 years, says there are certainly challenges in her job. Teaching the young people problem solving skills to enable them to make positive decisions for their future while still meeting their immediate needs requires patience and perseverance—and faith.
‘My faith makes it possible—by accessing God’s strength, wisdom, courage and resilience, I am able to be the “all things for all men” that are necessary each day,’ she says.
She loves her job and delights in their achievements, such as the student who recently completed year 12.
‘This young person has a physical disability and, as a result had been bullied at school to such an extent they fell behind in their studies. They were put into a special needs stream when they were intelligent because of these gaps in their learning,’ she says.
‘When this student came to us, they were very shy and felt socially inadequate. They didn’t feel they could express themselves as a person who was overcoming adversity and trying to build independence. But over the past three years we have seen a significant change. This student has been able to talk about things they’d never spoken about before with other people, has developed good friendships, but most of all has found that their gifts and talents are important.’
A typical day at Pirlirrpa sees students arrive from 9 am in time to have breakfast and a chat before classes start at 10 am.
‘Some of our students travel up to one-and-a-half hours each way and as some don’t do social environments well we allow them to start later so they can avoid peak hour transport,’ Maree says.
‘We try to get most of the lesson time done in the morning when students are fresher and have a bit more to offer before we break for lunch. Afternoons consist of wellbeing programs; this could be developing creative talents, catching up on studies or doing individual lessons with teachers if students find they’re not doing well in a group setting.
‘We also have speakers come to talk on topics such as living skills, financial issues, nutrition, volunteering and how to be an effective member of the community.’
The program not only has an impact on the students’ lives—its effects filter through to their families and into the broader community. Feedback from families at regular parent information nights is overwhelmingly positive.
‘Because their young person wants to be at school, parents often tell us this has changed how the entire family thinks about and prioritises education,’ Maree says.
‘They find the living and social skills their teenagers gain at Pirlirrpa spreads to their home life. They are more confident and willing to engage with their families—they sit down at dinner with them and talk, which they never did before.
‘We also encourage our students to volunteer to become active community members. Most of our young people continue with their education or gain employment and go on to be productive members of society.
‘I think Pirlirrpa’s impact and benefit to the community is extraordinary.’