In a remarkable model of using participation by Indigenous entities at local and community levels, the school is showing Australia how to recognise that cultural respect holds the key to supporting Indigenous identity.

Aboriginal elders, like Yawuru leader, Patrick Dodson, commenting on Prime Minister Turnbull’s eighth report on Closing the Gap said that Australia needed to have “buy-in” from Indigenous communities if it was to Close the Gap.

Mount Lawley SHS won the 2016 WA Premier’s Award for its Aboriginal Excellence Program (AEP) for Years 7-9 with the Follow the Dream Outreach Program for Years 10-12 that it hosts. 

The programs have a record of success in achieving outcomes after they were developed in response to local Indigenous concerns of students falling through the gaps and dropping out of school. 

Prominent elders, the Regional Aboriginal Education and Training Council, Swan District Aboriginal Education Committee, Edith Cowan University Kurongkurl Katitjin Centre for Indigenous Education and Research, Department of Education Aboriginal Education Directorate and local families backed the exciting Aboriginal Excellence Program.

Funding from corporate sponsors like Edith Cowan University and IGO led the school to make two-way smart moves for support and develop productive partnerships. 

The average attendance rate of AEP students in 2016 was 94.3 per cent, ahead of the school average of 92.1, WA average of 89.7 with Indigenous students between 10 and 30 per cent behind non-Indigenous students on a national basis that is supported by various data sources. 

A carefully planned AEP package of wrap-around services like weekly tutorials, counselling, cultural and academic services led the school to win a NAB Impact Award of $30 000 for community partnerships.

Program coordinator Dr Phillip Paioff, works with an advisory group of school leaders, Head of Kurongkurl Katitjin, parents and students to ensure that cultural, educational, career and aspiration goals are supported for each child. 

“We share issues weekly, plan and prepare students to focus on an annual research project linked to Indigenous cultural, social and historical topics of significance that are presented to an audience,” Paioff says. 

“We want students to share their research and make them an important part of sharing Aboriginal culture.”

One of its success stories is charismatic Jaymee Uren, a 19-year-old, confident Indigenous Curtin University student, studying to be a physiotherapist, who is also Assistant Coordinator for Follow the Dream at MLSHS.

As a former student with the foundation AEP in 2013, she advocates the importance of developing “soft skills” like communication, problem solving and leadership for Indigenous students.

“I told Phil (Paioff) that I don’t do public speaking but after addressing large audiences through the research project, I feel I can speak to anyone,” Uren says.

Brittney Andrews, a Year 12 Indigenous student, is on a mission to become a doctor and dreams of using her skills to help her people in remote communities.

“I chose medicine because I really like helping people,” she says.

Former Indigenous Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma, an architect of the Aboriginal led Close the Gap campaign and magistrate, Sue Gordon, suggest health as an area of great importance.  

Gordon, president of the Board of the Polly (Graham) Farmer Foundation, and Calma want suicide prevention and other medical issues addressed with more resources and support provided by the government.

MLSHS caters for high-achieving Indigenous students through its Follow the Dream program where students undertake vocational education and training supported by further education pathways. 

The program rated as the highest achieving Aboriginal Education Program in WA in 2015 with a 100 per cent Year 12 attainment rate sustained for two years. 

The Polly (Farmer) Foundation made MLSHS the premier site for FTD and Outreach programs in WA owing to its proximity to Edith Cowan University and excellence in individual mentoring, support and case management for those aspiring to university.

The roll call of honour for FTD boasts 11 Indigenous students attending university in 2016, one gaining placement at the WA Academy of Performing Arts and another winning a basketball scholarship to the Australian College of Sport in Melbourne.

The Mount Lawley Outreach Follow the Dream program has a flexible and dynamic program where students have had notable achievements including a Rio Tinto Academic Scholarship with selected Year 11 students sponsored to attend the Victorian Indigenous Engineering Winter School in Melbourne and Curtin University Engineering Summer School.

Tina Deegan, the MLSHS Outreach Program Coordinator, mentors 42 students from 17 schools and brings her international experience, from “compact” programs in Essex, UK and from working in Pennsylvania in the USA.

“I interview students, understand their aspirations and arrange for tutoring to help them with their needs,” she says.

The challenges are ever-present when helping students to graduate.  However, with 93 per cent attendance and 100 per cent attainment from the graduating Year 12 class, Indigenous students are surfing a wave of success.

“My greatest satisfaction is changing someone’s life.  It’s about helping someone to fulfil their potential,” Deegan says. 

Turnbull’s 2017 report mentions the importance of sharing culture through visual art and passing on cultural stories in a contemporary setting.

Chaplain Andrew Paul described how an eight metre long mural became a whole school project that gave Aboriginal culture pride of place alongside other cultural projects in this specialist language school.

Another visual art project, master-minded by Jade Doleman, a Year 12 student and Noongar artist, hangs near the library and is symbolic of the path from childhood to adulthood at MLSHS.

“In essence, we had our oldest and youngest students completing the painting,” Paul says.

Students participate in fundraising for community projects like honouring the Indigenous War Graves, attending the Indigenous War Veterans Commemorative Service held at Kings Park and Reconciliation Service to show their respect for the unsung First Nation people.

Their funds contributed to building headstones for fallen Indigenous veterans buried in unmarked graves.

Uren, who raised funds for this cultural program of her ancestors, played an important part in supporting students to honour the vision of Indigenous elder, John Schnaars.  She says students were deeply moved.

The moving Indigenous War Veterans Commemorative Service at Kings Park captured cultural history with dancers and the smoking ceremony as MLSHS’ band and choir performed Abide With Me.

In a touching ceremony students paid silent tribute to Indigenous history as the Aboriginal Excellence Program children laid a wreath at the Eternal Flame. 

Principal, Michael Camilleri, is passionate about what works.

“I work with a team of incredible individuals and am prepared to take risks so that we can make a difference,” he says.

“It takes commitment, working with a critical cultural mass and a belief that you can do it,”  Camilleri says.

Mount Lawley Senior High School has found many answers to Closing the Gap as it moves to the future.

National leaders should go West to find them.