A new Jesuit school will open its doors in the Sydney suburb of Redfern later this year – the first Jesuit school to be established in Australia in 60 years, and one that goes to the very heart of Jesuit teaching: equality and opportunity for all.
Catering to Aboriginal students, the primary school – tentatively named Jarjum College – will identify children who have fallen through the cracks and who are not attending school regularly due to various reasons of disadvantage. The school will provide students with opportunities to learn in a more informal setting, in order to open up more options for them in the future. It has been sponsored by St Aloysius’ College, Milsons Point, but will now stand alone as an independent Jesuit school.
Foundation principal Beatrice Sheen says she’s honoured and excited to be involved in this potentially life-changing project. But she’s ever mindful that the school’s success will depend to a large extent on the support of the people it serves.
‘This college belongs to the community, the people, and that’s how I want it to be run’, she says.
Jarjum will offer short-term assistance to at-risk children, returning them to the mainstream schooling system wherever possible. But Beatrice concedes that once the community’s precise needs are revealed, the model may change.
‘[These students] have got different needs. Their learning styles are different. So the kids fall through the gaps, and that’s why we’re trying to close the gaps. But if we can teach them resilience and they make it to high school, then they’ve achieved. And if they go further, well.....’
And there is no better model of resilience for the future students of Jarjum than Beatrice, a woman who left school at the age of 14 and married when she was just 17.
‘My husband was 17 too. We’re still together, six children later’, she says.
Beatrice had discovered as a child that her father was Aboriginal – a fact hidden from her by the adults in her life.
‘Until the day my father died he didn’t recognise the Aboriginal in him. Because in those days if you were white you could get away with it, and it was shameful to say you were Aboriginal. But I’m very proud of it.’
Beatrice discovered her heritage when her paternal grandmother died.
‘I went to the funeral with my grandmother, my mum’s mum. And I’m going, “Who are they? What are they?” because there were all these black people there and I’d never seen a black person. And my grandmother said, “They’re your cousins”. Well, I hid under her frock. I was so scared.’
Today, the fear has morphed into intense pride. ‘I’m a Gamilaroi woman from Gunnedah’, says Beatrice without hesitation.
At the age of 38, and eight-and-a-half-months pregnant with her third child, she enrolled in an education degree at the Australian Catholic University. Her parish priest had put her up to it.
‘I had one week off when I had the baby, and that was two weeks after I started, but I thought, “They’re not graduating without me!”.You can do it if you want to. When I sat in the lecture hall and they were talking about bibliographies, I had no idea what they were talking about! But I got through it.’
No doubt this feisty, determined approach will rub off on the children who come into Beatrice’s care. And she will ensure that they are taught in a way that appeals to their own special strengths.
‘Everything will be practical, because they won’t hang around if it’s airy fairy. We’ll use a different pedagogy for the kids because we want them to come to school, we want to make them welcome, so it’s going to be a nice learning environment.’
It’s a flexible approach that has extended into the community, where locals have been involved in consultation at every step of the process.
‘We don’t want to insult people, we’ve got to consult them in a respectful way’, says Beatrice. ‘For some of these kids, their parents are in jail, or on drugs. So they’re the kids we want to pick up. You do it respectfully by talking, by going out and meeting people. Peter [Hosking SJ, Rector of St Aloysius College] and I have been going out and meeting people. And once we meet them they’re okay. And then they’re going, “Well when are you opening? I’ve got three kids that can go there!”.’
While some local schools were initially concerned that Jarjum College was ‘going to pinch their kids’, they now understand better that the school aims to be a partner rather than a competitor.
‘They might recommend students who need help. We really want to work in the community, in partnership with all involved. And we hope to make a difference.’
Asked what her own dreams are for the students of this fledgling school, Beatrice speaks as one who knows that the possibilities are endless.
‘I hope the students realise they can do anything they want to in life. The world is their oyster, really, but we’ve got to get that into their heads.’
Jarjum will be housed in the St Vincent’s presbytery in Redfern, which is currently undergoing renovations after suffering fire damage several years ago. It will accommodate 20 children, will run from 8am to 6pm each weekday, and will rely heavily on the assistance of volunteers. The premises will hopefully be used for teen and adult literacy, numeracy and computing classes in the evenings.
By Catherine Marshall
Drawing by Cecile Jestin.