A plan to make all schools welcoming

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As Australians work toward white-black reconciliation and better opportunities for the indigenous population, one key issue is education. Primary and secondary schools are often good places for community groups to gather and seek common ground, but they are also sometimes accused of neglecting the needs of Aboriginal students.

In 1992, all states and territories signed on to the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Policy, which was revised in 1996. In the early 1990s, New South Wales and some other states also set up supporting policies.

The documents laid out a plan for teaching more indigenous history and culture and for Aboriginal participation in decisionmaking. Structures for collaboration range from parent associations to Aboriginal consultant groups that send monitors into schools. It's important for schools to have designated contacts, because they may have difficulty navigating the distinct Aboriginal groups in a given community, explains Pam Gill, director of the Aboriginal Programs Unit in the New South Wales Department of Education.

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Ms. Gill, a former teacher, says her office is charged with making sure curriculum, learning materials, and assessment tasks are "welcoming and appropriate to Aboriginal people."

In New South Wales, there are also about 300 assistants who work directly with Aboriginal students to help create a more comfortable school environment. Aboriginals are only 2 percent of the state population, with 29,000 of them in the primary and secondary schools.

The current focus in these schools is on improving literacy and numeracy skills, as well as attendance and retention rates, Gill says. According to 1996 census statistics, only 11 percent of Australia's indigenous adults qualify academically for post-secondary education, compared with 31 percent of non-indigenous adults.

There are some "shining lights," Gill says, citing a principal who raised achievement levels among Aboriginal kids to equal that of other groups. But she also hears of racism in the schools.

By the end of this year, nearly 90 percent of the state's teachers will have participated in cross-cultural training. The next step, Gill says, is "taking the emphasis off teaching people about our culture and putting it on giving teachers alternative [methodology] options," so they can teach Aboriginal students more effectively.

Although budgets seem to always be getting tighter, Gill says her counterparts across Australia are devoted to keeping Aboriginal education as a high priority.

"When I started teaching in the 1970s, [there was] almost nothing about Aboriginal people at all, and I've seen that gradually change.... We're beginning to see some of the fruits of a lot of hard work."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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