The world in one school
By Susan Prior
Milpera: Aboriginal name for a meeting place of brothers and sisters.
‘We are a bit like a cuckoo in the nest really, because while we are located in Chelmer very, very few of our students can live or do live in Chelmer and that’s of course because the price of housing and things like that. So we rely on the transport links to bring them in.’ So says Tom Beck, the immensely enthusiastic and likeable former principal of Milpera State High. The present acting principal of the school is Julie Peel.
I was at an Oxley–Chelmer Historical group meeting when Beck was the guest speaker. He presented an amazing and inspiring picture of the school, and its students, staff and volunteers, so I suppose I found this comment a tad poignant, the cuckoo conjuring up, in my mind at least, an unwelcome interloper. I am sure many will feel like I do that this school is an exotic species, and perhaps a little mysterious in that we don’t know all that much about it. I determined to set this right and to discover and share a little about the school.
Here’s the thing: this school is important to our State, and even to our country. There is only one other like it in Australia – in Adelaide – fulfilling a similar role.
Milpera prepares non-English speaking migrants aged between 11 and 17 for school or TAFE. Many of these children, about 80 per cent, are refugees. Opened in 1979, it was originally situated in the grounds of Corinda High School and was known as the Corinda Special School. Established there because of its proximity to the Wacol migrant hostel (which ceased operating in 1987), it soon outgrew the site; so, in 1984, the school moved to its present location, changing its name to Milpera Special School and subsequently Milpera State High School because of the negative connotations associated with being ‘special’.
The beauty of Milpera is that kids can travel easily to school by train from suburbs such as Darra and Wacol, being so close as it is to Chelmer railway station.
Prior to the 1970s, there was little need for this facility. The Australian government’s ‘White Australia’ policy intentionally favoured migration to Australia from specific European countries, and although some students struggled there wasn’t the same issues with learning to speak English. Since then the school has experienced waves of different migrant groups, depending on the geo-political conflicts and the government’s migration policy at the time. The school reacts like a barometer to whatever is happening around the world, so it must always remain flexible. Multilingual, multinational teacher aides are changed as the school’s language needs change.
The reality for children at Milpera is stark. Less than half of them live with both biological parents; they probably lack a father for a variety of reasons. As refugees they have few resources, but even so the attendance at the school is 7 per cent above the state average, with 95.1 per cent of students there every day last year – something Beck believes other school principals would love to achieve! Some kids live in Australia as refugees, without either parent; they are often stressed and bewildered. They may live in a house with a few others plus a care worker, who makes sure they do the washing up, wash their clothes, and so on.
Consider for a minute: it must be tough being so young in a foreign country with strange customs and a puzzling language. They may not know where their parents are, or they may be orphans. These kids may have witnessed dispossession, hunger, or even violence. Refugee camps are unpleasant places. As Beck says, ‘Imagine if I took you over to China and plonked you down in groups of three in small rural villages and told you to go off and live life when no one spoke any English around you. As an adult, I would be challenged, let alone children.’
Fortunately, Milpera has a huge support system to help these kids navigate through these issues.
Beck says that kids will often show up at school as early as 7.00 am, and sometimes will even turn up in the school holidays hoping that school is on. The value these kids place on education and their engagement with the school is both uplifting and a testament to the fantastic network of staff and volunteers that Beck has around him. For example, there are more than 200 volunteers, with 125 of these turning up each week to assist.
The school population will fluctuate and has as many as 300 students, with all the normal things like sporting teams, and plenty of excursions. As well as teaching English, the school teaches ‘settlement’, or how to live successfully in Australian society: how to catch the bus and train, courtesy, and appropriate responses, for example. Until students are settled they can’t learn properly. Australian values, such as gender equality, the right for everyone to be successful, and getting an education are important learnings towards the kids’ future success. If the school gets it right it will save the taxpayer millions of dollars as migrant children progress to making a positive contribution to society rather than sinking into welfare dependency.
Beck told us that Milpera has half the State average number of suspensions and exclusions, even though he admits that he is ‘a bit of disciplinarian’. The levels of conflict and violence are a lot less than the State average. Surprisingly, conflicts from ‘home’ are not visited in the school. Instead they are the petty squabbles of any children. Muslims and Christians rub along together, as do Croats, Serbs and Bosnians. In fact, Beck says, ‘the students from the same part of the world have more in common compared to the rest than divided them back home’. They eat similar food, listen to similar music and all support the same soccer teams. When they get to Milpera it is them together rather than the divisions caused by the conflicts at home.
One thing that became immediately apparent when I visited the school was the standard of artwork produced by the students. Thanks to art teacher Liana Trujillo I have been able to reproduce some of the work here.
On another note, I also saw Said Mubarak and his son Murtaza assisting him, making a couple of very striking sculptures at Liana’s instigation. Said is the father of a former pupil at the school. These sculptures of two students looking to the future now stand tall and proud by the front entrance to the school.
Milpera is an inherently optimistic place. You take children with very little English, very few resources and you turn them into people who are keen to learn and ready to move into society and make a positive contribution. Maybe the bird metaphor for Milpera students should be the Welcome Swallow – not exotic at all, and very welcome.