Making Waves with Student Engagement

Education, Feature topic, News — By on February 28, 2013 10:59 AM



“Despite the high levels of economic growth recorded in Australia over the last decade, too many Australians are still excluded from the opportunities they need to create the life they want. They can be trapped in a spiral of disadvantage…often leading to early school leaving, long term unemployment and chronic ill-health.” – A Stronger, Fairer Australia (Australian Government, 2009)

Tegan didn’t pass Year 11.

She was disengaged with her school work, skipping classes, battling anxiety and returning home angry night after night. But Tegan is just like any ordinary teenage girl; a regular 16-year-old who didn’t want to be labelled a ‘failure’ or ‘stupid.’

This was two years ago.

Fast-forward to life today and things have certainly changed.

Tegan is working hard, facing her anxiety and challenging herself. She is on track to complete her South Australian Certificate of Education (SACE) at the end of this year, completing year 10, 11 and 12 subjects. She has been rejuvenated with a sense of motivation and optimism and is now looking towards a bright future.

Tegan is just one success stories to come from the Wirreanda Adaptive Vocational Educational (WAVE) set-up.

Each year approximately 50,000 young Australians between the ages of 15 and 19 drop out of education or skill-based training and are left to face unemployment. Wirreanda High School in Adelaide’s southern suburbs is aiming to tackle this problem.

The WAVE programme is an alternative choice for students unable to fit within mainstream school. Implemented through the South Australian government’s Flexible Learning Options (FLO) initiative, it is the only onsite programme currently available in South Australia.

It is at no cost to the student or parent and offers a myriad of advantages including flexible subject choices, access to tutors, professional support with job seeking skills, access to youth workers and case managers, paid driving lessons to enhance independence, community based learning programmes and an alternative classroom set-up.

Director of WAVE, Paul Sherman, says it is not only about enhancing education but about implementing a holistic approach that challenges students and helps them to cope with external factors.

“The programme is not just about education, it’s about the development of life skills like knowing how to catch a bus, knowing how to prepare and cook food, knowing about healthy eating, about service access as well,” he says.

“I am personally working with a lot of Negotiated Education Plan students who are classed with a disability and for them to get their SACE is a huge achievement.

“You have to work really, really, closely with them but you’ve seen them grow through the process and when you tell them ‘it looks like you’re going to get your SACE’ it’s just massive.”

WAVE has been in operation for around a decade but the focus on education and developing the programme onsite is a relatively new development.

In 2012 WAVE was a regional recipient at the South Australian Teaching Awards for Innovative Engagement with Business and the Community.

But for Paul, it’s not about the recognition; it’s the students that keep his motivation wheels spinning.

“I always liked working with students who are disengaged or had major barriers in their life.

“At the end of the day you’re not going to save everybody but you can save a lot of them, help them develop skills that are crucial.

“That might be getting them their SACE or it might just be to become a happy individual with some really good goals in their life – that’s enough for me,” he says.

The programme accepts students aged 16 to 19 and works at tailoring a programme to their individual needs.

This year 120 students across three year levels enrolled in WAVE with many taking part in Australian School Based Apprenticeships, Vocational Education Training courses or Workplace Practices. Almost 20 students will also complete their SACE at the end of this year – a figure that doubles the result of last year.

According to Programme Manager for Student Mentoring and Youth Development at the Education Department, Liz Browne, the advantages are clear.

“In the short term, some of the key benefits to the wider local community have been identified through a reduction in some of the anti-social activities commonly associated with disengaged young people in the community, such as vandalism and juvenile justice issues.

“Programmes such as WAVE are vital to assisting students to stay engaged in a learning pathway, overcome barriers and create a more promising future,” she says.

As the only onsite programme in the state, Ms Browne encourages more schools to consider implementing an internal FLO initiative.

“Maintaining connection with school is a priority for all students.

“Attendance at a mainstream school site communicates inclusion and belonging, important aspects when considering the profile of students that are referred for FLO,” she says.

However, the programme does not only target kids growing up in lower socioeconomic areas.

Belinda has been a contracted youth worker at the centre for 18 months, and she says WAVE can fit into any school structure.

“The kids might be from an affluent family but if you haven’t got the support from your parents or your parents are users, or they’re work-a-holics or you never see them, there are lots of different things that would make this programme work for them,” Belinda says.

“It’s not just the ones with disengaged families, you have kids who are disengaged with millions of dollars.

“Some just don’t fit into that stereotypical school environment, which you think the government would start to look at and say look this doesn’t always work. We have been doing this a long time and we need to change it.”

For Belinda the most important aspect of the job is to work in an environment free from judgement and creating sustainable, lasting and trusting relationships.

“I have worked with some kids who have come from some horrific, horrible backgrounds but everybody’s got baggage, everybody’s got things going wrong in their lives and some of these guys have got a lot of it.

“Being non-judgemental is the biggest thing – you can’t judge them. I don’t mean you can’t just not judge them to their face, it’s got to come from your heart,” she says.

“Everyone’s different and people are driven to different things for different reasons.”

Next year, Tegan hopes to have graduated with flying colours and be utilising the skills she’s learnt at WAVE in the ‘real world’. According to Director Paul Sherman she’s the epitome of the programme’s success; the reason why he works so hard.

It is hoped that the programme will be used as a model for other schools wishing to foster student engagement and lifelong learning.

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