Doveton College: opening doors out of disadvantage

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There’s a real education revolution taking place in one of Melbourne’s most disadvantaged communities. Marie McInerney reports on how Doveton College is putting the evidence into action.

When the front doors opened early last year at Doveton College – a $32 million state-of-the-art, purposebuilt public school in the third poorest postcode in metropolitan Australia – one of June McLoughlin’s biggest worries was that ‘no one would come’.

Student numbers weren’t the concern. The school is home to 700-plus children from birth-to-Year 9 – bringing together the traditional school years with kindergarten, early learning, and child care, the primary school children pressing their noses at lunchtime against the windows of the early learning centre to coo at the babies.

Nor was it a worry about the community and health services, researchers, policy makers and educators who have poured into the school in its first two years, wanting to be part of this world-leading experiment in education that has teachers working alongside primary welfare officers, Maternal and Child Health, mental health specialists, Medicare Local, dental services, and, most  recently, a GP.

As Director of Family and Children’s Services, June’s concern was that the parents and broader community in this deeply disadvantaged pocket of Melbourne would not engage.

“A lot of our families are traditionally not good users of services in general, they don’t find them friendly, they often don’t want to engage. They had poor experiences themselves at school and education can be a scary place for them – for good reasons,” she says.

One of those parents puts it more bluntly. “It was crap,” says mother-of-four Patsy of her own  school days. “Nothing but bullying and backstabbing.” Her experiences as a school parent hadn’t been much better, particularly with two older children having hearing disabilities. She’s quick to note that Doveton is still in its early days but, she says, her youngest daughter is doing well and Patsy’s excited also for herself, being part of the Creating Capable Leaders parents training group.

”I think there’s a stigma attached to this area, and what this school is doing is flipping it on its  head.”

Among a range of weekly activities, the group runs the Healthy Little Rainbows program, sourcing cheap, fresh, seasonal produce in $10 packs for school families, and invites guest speakers to open up a bigger world of work and learning prospects.

“I’ve felt like an outsider for quite a while because my kids are deaf and that’s how I was looked at other schools. ‘She’s got the deaf kids, we don’t want them around our place’,” Patsy says. “I’ve lived in Doveton for 13 years and, until this school started, I’d not ever felt like a part of this community.’

Patsy and her friend Tereza, who has five children aged under five years, are also working on the Paint the Town Read program to build literacy among children and parents. They’re designing a children’s book set in various local spots, inspired by Doveton’s involvement in the pilot
Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library program, run by United Way Australia, which posts out a new  book each month to children in the area from birth to 5 years.

“I got told that half the Preps don’t know how to write their own name when they start school,”  Tereza says. ‘My little girl’s been coming along to preschool, and she can write her name, and ‘mum’ and ‘dad’. She’s writing numbers by herself.”

‘Barrier busters’

The engagement of parents and the broader community is not just an add-on at the school, but one of its pathways to major change in children’s lives for the long-term, with the goal to:

• reach children in numbers significant enough to affect the culture of a community
• transform the physical and social environments that impact on children’s development
• create programs at a scale large enough to meet local need.

The school cautions that community engagement is still a work in progress at Doveton, but Patsy  and Tereza are among more than 1,000 parents and other local residents who now come into the school every week. Executive Principal Brett New says they are “bringing their kids to school or to playgroup, going to sewing groups, parenting support sessions, attending an adult English class, to see the maternity and child health nurse, or a family counsellor.”

Brett says the services have become so integral to that work at Doveton that the school is looking to buy a nearby house to accommodate more. It refers to them as ‘barrier busters’, where school and community resources are woven together to address issues that limit a child’s capacity to  learn:

• poor health and wellbeing
• low parenting skills
• lack of safe, secure home environment
• child protection issues
• drug, alcohol, family violence, mental health issues within the family
• intergenerational poverty
• lack of resources and role models
• lack of stable housing
• unemployment
• disability or developmental delay
• education programs that don’t address need.

“We’ve got a huge range of programs and services that we’re setting in place to further develop our parents as individuals, including a full-time work and learning coordinator to encourage our parents into further study and into employment,” Brett says. “We’re not an employment agency, but poverty is a big issue. Too many of our kids have never seen an adult go to work, and so we’ve got some affirmative action around that with our Year 8s and 9s, to introduce them to the concept of work and what it means, get them to talk to employers, that really basic stuff.”

Literacy and language are also priorities, and not just English as a second language. Doveton is home to nearly 50 different first languages, but many of its English-speaking children begin school with little experience of oral language, and other early learning opportunities may also be missing in  a community that experiences entrenched poverty and fractured lives. Associate principal Vicki Miles tells the story of one child who came to an Open Day at the early learning centre and didn’t want to go home because there were so many books and toys. “In some of our families’ houses, there’s nothing for the children. I mean nothing. Not just no books, but no pencils, no paper.”

Housing itself is a major problem too. One family with a newborn recently had to live in their car for  some time, and the school reports unscrupulous landlords cramming three families into three-bedroom homes. Recognising the consequent impact on children’s learning, Doveton is working with a range of housing services, including Good Beginnings, on its Room to Move program which supports families who are paying exorbitant rents for poor accommodation.

Evidence pathways

The school’s curriculum and vision is drawn from decades of evidence showing the benefits of early learning, early intervention, and integrated support. It’s been inspired by – though now has  overtaken – the Toronto First Duty model of universal early learning and care, based on  groundbreaking work by the late Dr Fraser Mustard and Margaret McCain. Key components include high quality early learning programs for both child care and kindergarten, supported playgroups, and early literacy programs.

The Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy in Las Vegas and the work of the Harlem  Children’s Zone in New York also played a role in Doveton’s origins, inspiring Melbourne philanthropist Julius Colman. His Colman Foundation contributed $1.8 million towards the college’s construction plus further funding for at least eight years, the value of which has not been publicly disclosed.

The United Kingdom’s Sure Start program also resonated for June McLoughlin, who worked for 12 years at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute. “That reinforced to me the importance of integrating health services: there is no point us doing all these good things in the school if kids’ vision is not right or they’re hungry. “ The UK, through Sure Start and other early learning policies of the Blair and Brown Labour Governments, also developed the concept of progressive universalism that guides Doveton: a ‘system designed to ensure maximum support for the most disadvantaged within a universal platform of services for all children’.

June explains: “The way we look at it is to say: what is the hook that will bring people in that doesn’t say to them ‘you need help, so you’d better come here’? That to me is the bottom line. If you can run a suite of services that people will naturally gravitate to because everyone else does, that’s fine, but in order to do that you have to have universal services as the base, so people don’t feel stigmatised. So when people walk through our doors here, they don’t come because they’re a ‘problem person’. The staff response is: ‘hello, it’s great to see you, how can we help?’ not ‘what do you want?’”

Classroom benefits

It makes for a school that is like few others. June says it’s taken some time to shift the culture – not so much for the community services which are more likely to work in partnerships, but for some teachers and departmental people who are used to defined educational roles.

“I first started teaching in this area, I was quite naive. Now I’ve got quite good understanding of effects of the home lives that some of these kids have and what they bring with them to school.”

“There are exceptional schools that do this stuff but it’s not a matter of course. So when you’re talking about kids known to child protection and in out of home care, or whose absenteeism rates are high, or are suicidal or selfharming, schools find those kids really, really challenging because they’re not set up to deal with them: they don’t have the processes, supports, training. I’m not criticising teachers, it’s just the way the system works, the system’s not joined up.”

For one Year 1-3 teacher, there’s no comparison with the other schools in which she’s worked. She gives an example of a child presenting in her class with a family issue that is causing her distress. “Straight away, I can log the issue on a central data base, shoot an email to the primary welfare worker and within 20 minutes she’ll be over, and have external services contacted and involved.” At previous schools, support could take much longer to organise, and there would often be little follow-up. “Here it’s about nipping it in the bud,” she said. “The child comes back to class feeling that his or her issues were valid, that what they were going through was real, that people were caring, and they are able to get on with their learning. It’s far more productive and far less disruptive for everyone.”

She has also welcomed the more comprehensive professional development delivered to staff at Doveton, particularly around trauma and its physical, psychological and mental effects on children.  “I think when I first started teaching in this area, I was quite naive. Now I’ve got quite good  understanding of effects of the home lives that some of these kids have and what they bring with them to school.”

“I think outside people see Doveton as a really tough place to work, and it can be, but I find it very rewarding. I think there’s a stigma attached to this area, and what this school is doing is flipping it on its head. I don’t think anywhere else you’d get the opportunity to work with the  calibre of staff we have here and there’s a freedom to experiment, to try new things, to be at the forefront of education in the world, not just Australia. It’s pretty exciting.”
Doveton demographics
• in the lowest quintile, according to the SEIFA Index of Relative Socioeconomic Disadvantage
• 32 per cent of children considered developmentally vulnerable on one or more domains (versus 20 per cent nationally); 21 per cent developmentally vulnerable on two or more domains (versus 10 per cent nationally)
• 30 per cent of population attained year 12 education level
• less than 4 per cent with degree level qualifications
• 12 per cent unemployed; 14 per cent in full employment
• 12.5 per cent lived at different addresses one year prior to 2006 Census
• 75 per cent of residents reportedly eligible and holding Health Care Cards
• 50 different languages spoken by residents

The partner community services agree. “It’s not just co-location,” says Joe Cauchi, Director of Services at Family Life. “We work in sync with the school and its whole focus. School is where people come with their children, so it’s a safe space for them, and Doveton’s created a whole lot of opportunities for them to do  other things in that safe space. That provides us with a ready audience for the work we need to do.”

Great expectations

It’s that promise of transforming lives that is now among June McLoughlin’s biggest worries. “The  expectations really scare me,” she says – particularly the desire for short-term gains. “It’s very early days, but you know how government works: they are really keen to have the problems all solved yesterday. This is a long-term investment and it’s going to be five to eight years down the track before you see any definitive outcomes.”

While Victoria’s Department of Education and Early Childhood Development is supportive, in fact excited about the potential of Doveton, she says it still struggles to be flexible. Barriers that could be fixed “with the sweep of a pen” end up bogged down in bureaucracy.

From the outset, the aim has been to develop a ‘stand-out best practice approach’  that can be applied elsewhere but June warns that governments can’t “take Doveton and plonk it down in Broadmeadows”. It is, she says, a very local response driven by two years of intensive  community consultation.

“The department likes to talk about two year funding programs to set something up. I tell them it’s a waste of time, because it takes two years to work out what you’re going to do and have everyone on board. You’ve got to know your community: who are the main players, what services are there, how is it working, what’s not working, what are parents saying they need? And when you talk about true integration, it relies not just on a solid practice of relationships and partnerships, but also on common vision, common purpose, common language, common  frameworks, common outcomes.”

But caveats aside, her worst fear would be that Doveton remains an exception. “The worst would be that it’s a one-off. It would be a good one-off, but it would be a big shame if we can’t influence broad policy change.”

Community and health services involved at Doveton College:
• City of Casey
• Southern Community Health
• Connections UnitingCare
• The Smith Family
• Family Life
• Parenting Research Centre
• Brotherhood of St Laurence
• Monash Health
• Good Beginnings Australila

“I’m not saying we’ve got all the answers, I’m saying this is what we’ve put together and this is where we’re up to and we’ve got good  engagement at this point in time, of our providers and supports, and families and community, and that to me is a good start. Will we get the outcomes we want? We’ll have to wait and see. But engagement is an outcome, of course. As I said, I was terrified they wouldn’t come. But they come  in and out all day long. That’s what it’s about.”

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