Menai High School
Ms MEGARRITY (Menai) [5.54 p.m.]: On Wednesday 21 March I attended a function at Menai High School. I attended that function because the Sutherland district superintendent, Ms Julie Houghton, was presenting the school with a director-general's award for outstanding achievement in teaching and learning programs. Menai High School staff and students received this prestigious award for a program through which they developed a whole-of-school approach to combating racism and promoting multiculturalism. It was obvious to me on the day—and this is a large claim—that this spectacular anti-racist campaign has united the whole school in a celebration of community diversity.
Menai High School, a culturally diverse and comprehensive high school, is located in a generally affluent area. According to the school profile there are 1,100 students, 65 per cent of whom are from an Anglo-Australian background and 35 per cent of whom are from non-English speaking backgrounds. The largest cultural groups are Lebanese, Macedonian, Greek and Italian, with a significant number of Chinese and Indian students.
Students from four Aboriginal families attend the school. In addition, a significant number of students are from socioeconomically disadvantaged families residing in a large Department of Housing complex within the general area. The Menai-Illawong-Alfords Point area, which serves this school, is home to the third largest settlement of Macedonian families in this State. Statistics from the 1996 census reveal that Sutherland shire has a higher incidence of immigrant settlement than suburbs such as Kogarah, Hurstville and Leichhardt. As I said earlier, this program really arose from the fact that in 1999 the school experienced some terrible problems.
The school identified that racism was evident within the divisions of the student body, especially in the senior school. According to students, a "them and us" mentality prevailed. There was the Anglo clique and the ethnic clique, which was accepting of anyone not Anglo-Australian. In the junior school those distinctions were not so obvious, although it was noted that students from the public housing development tended to stick together. On the issue of religion, students felt that the promotion of Christian values was above their own religions, which were mainly Muslim, Hindu or orthodox. The perception from the Lebanese community in particular was that the school was racist and that only Lebanese children were disciplined and suspended. There was limited contact between ethnic communities and the school, and a lack of awareness of school procedures and options.
In order to address these issues students, teachers and parents got together and decided on a two-phase process. Phase one was to promote multicultural activities within the school to gain increased staff, and student and community awareness and involvement. Phase two was the curriculum dimension. Head teachers and staff were to include anti-racist and multicultural activities in faculty teaching programs. Some programs were aimed at staff by sensitising them to issues of cultural misinterpretation. Some programs were aimed at students through multicultural performance days and the incorporation of multicultural activities across the curriculum.
Other programs were aimed at parents through ethnic parent-staff morning teas and school bulletin items so that they really got to know about every issue and, for the first time, they could talk about some of these problems. They then proceeded to phase three—celebration and consolidation in 2001. At the February parents and citizens meeting parents decided to provide $4,500 to maintain and expand this initiative in 2001. One parent said:
Our kids don't fear kids from other cultures because of this program at this school. It has got to be a top priority for getting P&C support.
Those funds are being used in a number of areas, including multicultural performance days, the important year 7 multicultural sensitivity workshop day, and an extension in year 6 for four feeder schools so that they can maintain this program as students move in and out of the school. I pointed out earlier that the school is now in phase three—celebration and consolidation. The function that I attended, which was quite overwhelming, was part of that celebration. It included a welcome to the nation by Aboriginal elders of the area, a didgeridoo performance and multicultural student performances.
That statement does not adequately describe our experiences on the day. We experienced a myriad of different and culturally based activities. The backdrops for the stage were nothing short of works of art. They incorporated many different students' ideas about their countries of origin. The Aboriginal background designs formed the backdrop for the cultures that have come to this country. As I said earlier, those backdrops were quite spectacular. One thing that exemplified the success of the program was the dance group that performed. It involved Greek, Macedonian and Lebanese girls. Three groups performed as one. Eighteen girls worked together to develop a series of dances which represented all the different cultures. [Time expired.]
Mr MARKHAM (Wollongong—Parliamentary Secretary) [5.59 p.m.]: The honourable member for Menai has again brought to the attention of the House issues relating to education and education values in which she has been involved in her electorate. She has spoken about a great case of self-empowerment for teachers, students and the community at large. We must understand that school communities are a vital part of everyday life. Greater involvement of parents in everyday life in the school community can do no harm at all. The good it does has been highlighted by the honourable member for Menai. I congratulate her on attending phase three of the program. The honourable member should bring it to the attention of the Minister for Education and Training, who may be able to put it in place in other schools throughout New South Wales.