Dr. Chris Sarra, an internationally recognised Indigenous education specialist, told educators at Western Australia’s Positive Schools conference, that a lot of talk about high expectations was simply rhetoric.
“Lots of us talk about high expectations of children in schools but do we really understand the difference between high expectations rhetoric and high expectations relationships?” he asked his audience.
He invited teachers and academics to embrace the exciting new challenge of delivering on the promise of a new stronger, smarter reality for Aboriginal children.
Sarra was the youngest of 10 children who grew up in Bundaberg, Queensland, with first-hand experience of issues faced by Indigenous children at school.
He became the first Aboriginal Principal of Cherbourg State School, an Aboriginal community school in South East Queensland and later founded the Stronger Smarter Institute, Queensland, that has worked with and motivated more than 500 schools and 2500 school and Aboriginal community leaders.
“I told children at Cherbourg that the most important thing you will learn from me is that you can be Aboriginal and successful,” Sarra said.
His insistence on high standards lifted attendance at the school from 62 to 94 per cent in 1999.
“The Stronger Smarter Institute is about changing the tide of low expectations in Indigenous education,” Sarra told educators.
His research revealed stereotypical perceptions of Aboriginal children as being underachieving, aggressive, defiant, sporting, absenters, disobedient and shy among other characteristics.
“In a Stronger Smarter School we don’t reinforce these perceptions,” he told teachers.
“We co-create solutions to complex challenges by teachers and students reflecting on the social and cultural baggage we carry.”
The real danger, he said, was not to know the difference between cultural sensitivity and collusion with low expectations.
“We need to ensure that our professional rhetoric matches reality and to do this we must make it personal,” he said.
Today, he believed, there was no place to hide without being challenged in all classrooms in Australia for any teacher of Aboriginal children.
Karen Pedrick, deputy principal at South Thornlie Primary School, who attended Sarra’s talk, said that her cultural experience showed the importance of leaders and teachers setting high standards.
Pedrick was network principal for Indigenous Studies at Goomalling Primary School in WA and principal at several remote Aboriginal Schools like Yulga Jinna, Meekatharra, Derby and Kununurra district high schools.
“At Yulga Jinna Remote Community School I found attendance to be low. I spoke to leaders in the community and showed how important attendance and literacy was for Aboriginal children,” she said.
“Instead of parents taking their children out of school, whenever they went somewhere, I suggested that they leave them with an aunt or grandparent to attend literacy classes continuously,” Pedrick said.
Her initiative raised attendance dramatically with the school setting a record for the highest attendance in the Mid West of WA, gaining her the Director-General, Sharyn O’Neill’s recognition award in 2011.
As principal of Goomalling Primary School she saw the importance of building a strong basis for Aboriginal children from Early Childhood and formed an Indigenous Playgroup attended by parents.
“I have worked in schools with the Aboriginal Education Indigenous Officer, Indigenous elders and families to develop a Restorative Justice approach where the child is accountable for its actions and gained support from the community,” Pedrick said.
Pedrick’s work with literacy and cultural identity led Aboriginal students to research cultural perspectives and each student wrote a personal book. It gained her a highly regarded PALS Social Skills Program award in recognition of her cultural work.