AC-Local-Story-Aug-2011-045 editFor those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share;
With courage let us all combine
To Advance Australia Fair.

The second-verse lyrics of our national anthem may be a little neglected, but the sentiment goes to the heart of a contentious debate that’s raged in this country for years: do we open our gates to all, regardless of colour or faith? Should we expect migrants to adopt an Anglo-Christian lifestyle, or should we accept cultural diversity?

Late last year [2010], Australians witnessed furious public meetings when the Federal Government announced its plan to move asylum seekers to Inverbrackie in the Adelaide Hills and Northam in Western Australia. One of the main arguments from some locals concerned the impact child asylum seekers might have on local schools. While it is natural for parents to be protective and concerned for their own children above others, there is living proof their fears may be unjustified.

Bellevue Heights Primary School, Adelaide, is a shining example of the innumerable advantages of teaching students from around the world. Bellevue Heights is one of 16 South Australian primary schools that host a New Arrivals Program (NAP). In doing so, it not only gives participants an introduction to the English language and the Australian way of life, but also produces a rich and unique environment for Aussie kids.

“The NAP was one of the reasons we chose to send our kids here,” says Matt, whose two sons attend Bellevue Heights. “We hope that by growing up surrounded by children from different countries, our kids will learn not to judge others based on what they look like or where they come from.” Matt’s seven-year-old son, Cameron, says, “I like learning about where other kids have come from. Two of my best friends come from China and Uzbekistan. When we learn about other countries, my friends sometimes teach us words in their language or wear their national dress.”

While students mingle at break times and for activities such as assemblies, craft and excursions, NAP and mainstream classes are separated for core learning. Students in NAP classes represent about 40 cultural and language groups. “The diversity is amazing,” says Sarah, mother of Wen, seven, and Yuan, 13, who were adopted from China. “For us, it is important that our daughters are among children from a range of backgrounds. I can also see how much the Australian-born kids get out of being here. It enriches all of them.”

Of the 229 students at Bellevue Heights, 101 are enrolled in the NAP. The program is available for students from non-English-speaking backgrounds who have been in Australia for less than 12 months (or 18 months for Reception and Year 1 students). After completing their time in the NAP, students enter mainstream education. Some children travel a considerable distance to access the NAP, so when exiting the program they usually attend their local school.

Laelle, 12, is a refugee from war-ravaged Congo, and has only five weeks left in the program. She has become fluent in English and enjoys interacting with her classmates. “Everyone in my class is friendly. If you have a problem, the teachers listen and help. The [mainstream] students are friendly when we do things with them.” While she is nervous about entering mainstream schooling, she feels that the program has taught her valuable skills to cope.

The unique needs of the New Arrivals students are met by a number of specialist workers. NAP classes are taught by specially qualified English as a Second Language teachers, and focus on English language and social skills. Even children with no knowledge of English before arrival can soon communicate well in the classroom and in the playground. Laelle is proud that she has been able to teach her mother some English, which helps her to get along in the community.

A well-resourced New Arrivals Program has a ripple effect throughout the community. As students become fluent in English and knowledgeable about the Australian way of life, so too do their families. Bellevue Heights helps this happen by involving NAP families in school activities whenever it can, and engaging a counsellor to ease the transition.

However, some local parents are wary of sending their children to Bellevue Heights, concerned that NAP students will take attention and resources away from their child. But according to school principal Vince Mulkerin, “The reverse is actually true; we have more than the usual complement of literacy and numeracy resources because
we host the new arrivals.”

Far from helping address community misconceptions, the release of NAPLAN (National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy) data on the My School website was disappointing for many at Bellevue Heights. Because of the inclusion of New Arrivals Program student data, the statistics didn’t accurately reflect the school’s achievements. Achievements in areas such as student wellbeing, science and the arts, were overlooked by My School. Also missed was the success in taking students with no English-language skills and, in just one year, developing those skills to the point where they can hold their own in mainstream classes.

Naturally, having students with such diverse backgrounds and varying levels of English can create challenges. Bilingual school-support officers help bridge these divides when the school needs to communicate with students and their families.

One of the tools Bellevue Heights has adopted to meet challenging behaviours that might arise is the ‘Stop, Think, Do’ program: red for ‘stop’ the unwanted behaviour, amber for ‘think’ about the consequences and alternatives, and green for ‘go’ ahead with the right behaviour. “The visual nature and simple steps of ‘Stop, Think, Do’ mean it’s easy for all kids – even those with limited English skills – to understand. But I think I can safely say NAP doesn’t create extra problems in the schoolyard,” says Mulkerin. “We have the same kinds of behavioural issues as any other school I’ve worked in. But I imagine the diverse nature of our school community actually encourages greater acceptance of ‘otherness’, and then perhaps more respect.”

This article was first published in the August 2011 edition of Adelaide’s Child.

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