A record number of Indigenous students will complete Year 12 at Mount St Bernard College in Herberton this year.
It’s just one of the successes the Years 7 to 12 Catholic co-education college is celebrating in 2017. Another is the opening in late 2016 of a transition house to help smooth the boarding transition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.
More than 80 per cent of the school’s students are Indigenous, with a majority of those coming from remote or very remote Indigenous communities across Queensland and the Northern Territory.
Mount St Bernard (MSB) College Principal David Finch says pastoral care, in particular around the transition process, plays a crucial role at the college, which has very close ties with families and their communities, sometimes stretching back three generations.
The transition process starts with about one dozen staff members escorting students between home and school at the start of each term and a transition team of three staff at MSB. The college works with local councils to set up Skype meetings throughout the school year, keeps in touch via Facebook, and this year a refurbished Queenslander was opened as a transition house to help students for whom the change is particularly hard.
“Probably every week we’d have family members staying there,” David says.
“In fact we just had two mums here this week – we’ve got one mum who is from the Torres Strait and one mum from the Northern Territory who have been staying. They have been going into classes and supporting their sons,” he says.
“I think the difference with the Indigenous students we have is that most of them, probably in fact all of them, are from remote and very remote communities and a lot of them have not really had much experience with school routine or education at all.
“So quite a few of them, when they do come – and there’s always some that don’t make it, as in all boarding schools—but the routine of coming to a school setting and sitting in class does not fit them and they are not used to it.”
That’s why this year’s record number of 25 Indigenous Year 12 students is a particular success. While the MSB is a small school of around 200 students, in four of the past five years 100 per cent of its Year 12s have left with a Queensland Certificate of Education, a Vocational Education and Training qualification or a School-Based Apprenticeship. All of the students who have applied to QTAC have received a tertiary offer over the same time period.
The school also has around 50 students from the Tablelands who are day students only.
David says the rich cultural background of students, who come from the Torres Strait, Darwin, Katherine, Santa Teresa, Elcho Island and other Northern Territory communities, as well as remote and very remote Queensland Aboriginal communities and the Atherton Tablelands, means their NAIDOC Day celebration is the biggest day of the school calendar.
This year it will be celebrated on August 25.
“It’s huge,” David says. “It’s amazing—it’s the singing, it’s the dancing. We’ve got the kids who perform in a band—we’ve got our DigiKids, which have become quite popular. We have Elcho Island girls that perform and dance for us, we have Torres Strait Islander boys that perform and dance, so it’s the girls and the boys that get involved, as well as the kids from all of the different communities. It’s fantastic.
“A lot of families save up all year to come to our NAIDOC Day.”
David says NAIDOC celebrations are important for all schools regardless of how many Indigenous students they have, as it is important to help “Close the Gap”.
“We have about 50 local students, local girls and boys from around the Tablelands area that come to this school, and they enjoy NAIDOC as much as the Indigenous kids because it is an opportunity to really express the importance of keeping that culture alive,” David says.
“The non-Indigenous kids can get a better understanding of what the culture is all about and that is one of the great things we do here, and that’s just not with NAIDOC Day, that’s a big part of the whole school year,” he says.
A great thing here is that because our Indigenous students come from the remote and very remote communities, the culture is still very much a part of their lives.
A video recently released by Catholic Education Diocese of Cairns, in conjunction with Josh Arnold from Small Town Culture, features students from MSB singing about their cultures.
“We had our three groups represented in the video, so we have got the Torres Strait Islander students as well as the Territory Aboriginal kids and the Queensland Aboriginal kids, so the three of them have an opportunity to express their culture in this video clip. They loved it,” David says.
A student from St Monica’s College in Cairns is also featured in the video clip.