School Cultivates Native Culture

New South Wales education program aims to help long-neglected Aborigine students

TWELVE-YEAR-OLD Anthony McNiven is kneeling over a sheet of white paper with the sun to his back. A teacher's aide is sketching Anthony's elongated shadow onto the paper. Inside the shadow, Anthony will paint decorations, the same as the ones his Aboriginal ancestors would have painted on their bodies. The body painting is part of the art class at Pemulwuy College, an inner-city Sydney high school for ages 12 through 17. Opened in late February, Pemulwuy is unique among the 533 public and private high schools in New South Wales: It is all-Aboriginal. Funded by the federal government, it does not charge tuition.

The school is also unusual because it is the result of Aboriginal community frustration. ``The system has failed our kids,'' says director of cultural studies Mary Lou Buck, an Aborigine and one of the school's founders.

Mrs. Buck's opinion is supported by the New South Wales Aboriginal Education Consultative Group, the chief state organization on Aboriginal education issues. In a history of Aboriginal education, the group wrote that Aboriginal education was ``a story of destruction, exclusion, and neglect, and of racism and second-class schooling.''

At Pemulwuy's opening, the federal minister for Aboriginal affairs, Robert Tickner, recalled that his own high school history book in 1967 described Aboriginal people as ``a parasitic and a backward race.'' Aboriginal students say they are still called ``blackie'' in the public schools.

The Commonwealth and the states are making an effort to improve Aboriginal education. Last year the federal government established a National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Policy with 21 long-term goals to involve Aboriginal people in decisionmaking, to establish equal access to educational services, and to aim for equal educational results. (Torres Strait Islanders live on islands off the Cape York Peninsula in the far north of Queensland and are considered a separate indigenous peopl e, although they fall under the Department of Aboriginal Affairs.)

Federal funding has increased from A$50 to A$90 million ($38 to $68 million) per year. Another key feature is the establishment of Aboriginal parent committees for local schools. Last year, 2,000 committees were established and received federal financial support. Officials in the Department of Employment, Education, and Training say it is too early to see the results of the new program since funds for data collection became available only last year.

State and federal governments have their hands full. In 1988, a government report found that 13 percent of 5- to 15-year-old Aborigines - the compulsory school age - do not go to school, compared with less than 2 percent for all Australians. Only 17 percent complete their high school education, compared with 48.7 percent for all students.

``This situation signals a crisis in the provision of education to Aborigines,'' said the report.

There has been improvement since then, says the chairman of the 1988 report, Paul Hughes, coordinator of Aboriginal Education in the South Australian Education Department. For example, there are now 3,500 Aborigines in higher education (university level), compared with only 700 in 1983. But Hughes says ``Aborigines remain the most disadvantaged group in Australia.''

FROM 1883 to 1940, Aboriginal students could be officially excluded from a state school if any non-Aboriginal parent objected. Mission schools, provided by the government, did not go beyond third grade until after 1940 and were often taught by the managers' untrained wives. As part of the government's assimilation policy in the 1970s, Aborigines were allowed into the regular public schools. But most schools ignored Aboriginal culture and learning styles.

The Sydney Aborigines - called Kooris - hope that Pemulwuy is different. Already, in one important way it is: The school is the product of the local Aboriginal community. In 1988, about 100 Aboriginal children walked out of another local high school because they were unhappy with the Anglo-Saxon education system. ``The kids came to us and said, `Look, we saw you marching and demonstrating to get legal and medical services. Now what are you going to do about us?''' says founder Buck.

A goal of the students was to get more Aboriginal studies, now required in all Australian schools. (In April, Mr. Tickner announced a new program to foster better understanding of Aboriginal culture and history at all of Australia's schools from kindergarten through high school.) Thirty percent of Pemulwuy's courses are Aboriginal studies, which are mandatory classes. Almost every subject is taught with some Aboriginal content.

In textile class, for example, the students are asked to design an outfit for a Koori person who is going to an international meeting. Art classes concentrate on Aboriginal designs and students watch videos about ancient Aboriginal customs. Every Friday, the class goes on a trip to look at rock paintings or learn about the bush (outback).

The initial concept called for Aboriginal instructors. Pemulwuy advertised around the state and received 103 applications - all from white teachers. ``We picked those most sensitive to Aboriginal issues,'' says Buck, who hopes to hire Aboriginal teachers eventually.

Jennifer Anderson, a Pemulwuy teacher, says she was attracted to the school because of her interest in Aboriginal education. Ms. Anderson, a first-year teacher, did her university thesis on bush foods. Now she is teaching textiles. ``The students learn how to make better decisions on buying clothes, and it helps give the girls a sense of fashion. It's all part of building self-esteem,'' Anderson says.

After only 10 weeks on the job, the teachers are still experimenting with ways to teach the students. ``You can't go to the blackboard to teach. The kids must be doing something all the time,'' says Tim Huang, who teaches math and science.

An added complication, says Mr. Huang, is that among the boys only one out of 17 is literate. Some of the children are still illiterate after three or four years of high school education.

Mr. Hughes of the South Australian Education Department says he believes Pemulwuy may be starting too late in the process to help the children already of high school age. ``It is difficult to turn around children in the last two years of school,'' he explains.

For the teachers at Pemulwuy, the challenges come hourly. During a math class, Huang apologizes for the lack of discipline in the classroom as children shout for a teacher to come and look at their workbooks. ``Some of the students have not been to school for several years,'' he explains.

Attendance at Pemulwuy is spasmodic. Although 70 students are enrolled, on one day at the end of April only about 20 students were in school. Teachers blame poor attendance on the relative lack of stability in family life. If a parent gets in trouble with the law, for example, a child may go to live with an aunt or uncle who lives a considerable distance from Pemulwuy. Buck says attendance would improve if the school had the funding for a bus.

The teachers and administrators are working hard to keep the student's attention. At the end of April, for example, Performing Lines, a theater troupe, presented Jack Davis's ``The Honeyspot,'' a play about white-and-black relations. There was Aboriginal dancing, with the actors skillfully imitating kangaroos, emus, and eagles. The children were entranced.

After the show, the actors, students, and teachers discussed the play. ``How important was school to you?'' a teacher asked Justine Saunders, an Aboriginal actress. ``I wish there were a school like this in my day,'' replied Ms. Saunders, who said that most of her education came from ``life itself.'' She encouraged the students to respect the elders and the laws.

There are already some bright spots at Pemulwuy. The students feel more comfortable in the all-black school. Twelve-year-old Ashanti Gemmott felt defensive at a mixed-race high school. ``The racism is strong at other schools,'' says Linda Gemmott, Ashanti's mother, who is Iraqi and married to a West Indian.

Sixteen-year-old Amanda Aldridge says she used to go to school only three days a week. Her mother was sick and she stayed home to help cook and clean. Now Amanda, who hopes to become an airline hostess, comes to school almost everyday. ``I like this school,'' she says.

Ray Carr, an energetic 12-year-old, transferred from the school where the walkout took place. ``I didn't learn anything there,'' he says. ``This is better.''

Anthony, the shadow painter, shows real artistic promise. He is patient and quiet when he is painting. And he has now accepted the fact he needs to learn to read and write. Says Peter Wells, the art teacher, ``We're making progress.''

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