A dream two years in the making was realised on Monday 11 February when Redfern Jarjum College, the first Jesuit school to be established in Australia in over 60 years, opened its doors to 24 Indigenous primary-aged children.
‘It’s actually pretty nice to be here’, said Benjamin, an 11-year-old Year 4 student, as he ate his school-provided breakfast out in the spacious new courtyard. ‘I can learn about things here. I’m mostly going to have fun and learn.’
Benjamin was the first student to enrol at Jarjum, a unique school aimed at nurturing Aboriginal children who are finding it difficult to flourish in mainstream schools. The idea for such a school was initiated by Ailsa Gillett, founder of Life for Koori Kids and a staff member at St Aloysius’ College. Management, staff members, students and parents at St Aloysius’ College and later St Ignatius’ College, Riverview embraced Ailsa’s suggestion so enthusiastically that in the space of just two years a location had been found, a principal appointed, and a whole community of supporters rallied.
To date, more than one million dollars has been raised for the project, with funding also received from the Catholic Block Grant Authority. Volunteers have helped with all manner of jobs, from helping to serve students’ meals to unloading and cataloguing books; and the books themselves have been donated by schools like Oatley Public School, Ravenswood and Knox Grammar School. Jarjum Principal Beatrice Sheen says that the support from the broader Jesuit community, the public and the families of the students has been central to a successful school launch.
‘We’re now full, we’ve got a waiting list and we’ve already got children booked in for next year. I’m over the moon!’
While the idea for a niche, tuition-free school such as this is itself not new, the inner city location is. Jarjum is located in the heart of Redfern, where most of its students live. It occupies the former presbytery of St Vincent de Paul Parish, which was gifted to the Aboriginal people of Redfern by the late Fr Ted Kennedy and, damaged by fire, had stood derelict for more than two decades before being earmarked as a location for the newest Jesuit school. The structure was redesigned within the constraints of its heritage listing by St Aloysius old boy Peter Lonergan and Julie Cracknell of Cracknell and Lonergan Architects. It has been transformed into a bright, fresh, inspiring space, a fitting metaphor for the challenges that the school aims to overcome.
‘It’s taken two years to get to this stage so we have it renovated and ready to use’, said Graeme Mundine, member of the school council. ‘Education is so important for Aboriginal people into the future. The idea here is to connect students back to the idea of a formal education, for an interim period. Then they can hopefully step back into the mainstream and do well for themselves. We’re looking at it as an alternative learning centre.’
And already the school has received the blessing of the locals. Community member Kathy Slater said that while elder Uncle Max Eulo had performed smoking ceremonies for Queen Elizabeth, Prince William, Oprah Winfrey and two popes, this was his most special ceremony by far.
‘We’ve been waiting to do this for two years, and it’s finally happened’, she said. ‘You can feel the good spirit in everything that’s happened here.’
To donate to Redfern Jarjum College go to www.rjc.nsw.edu.au
By Catherine Marshall