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Moree Plains Shire Council

Young Aboriginal students at Courallie High School worked with Aboriginal artists to produce their own visual and performing arts interpretation of the Rainbow Serpent story. Creating an off-school learning environment and setting high expectations gave the students a strong sense of ownership of the project. In an informal learning environment their attitude to authority improved, as did attendance rates at school.

Background

The Moree Plains Shire Council sponsors a highly successful HELP project that addresses the literacy and numeracy needs of young people in the region. However, along with other government-funded organisations, the Council has found it difficult to reach young Aboriginal street kids who experience high levels of disadvantage. These young people often engage in chronic truancy, deal with problems such as family alcoholism, experience little parental or guardian guidance and find it difficult to manage anger.

Courallie High School, the local school, has implemented a number of strategies over the years to reduce truancy levels amongst this group of young people. However, they were looking for a fresh approach and welcomed the opportunity to join the Council in running an innovative arts-based pilot project aimed at reducing truancy and encouraging literacy. The project became the catalyst for the first Aboriginal cultural event in Moree in recent years.

Project Objectives

The project took a holistic approach to achieving a range of objectives with young people at risk in the Moree, Boggabilla and Toomelah districts. For the school, the primary objectives were to reduce truancy and student suspension rates - initially more an ideal than a realistic goal.

The specific objectives of the Strategic Pilot Project were to engender an interest in remaining at school; develop interpersonal and social skills; and increase confidence and self-esteem.

Both the school and the project coordinator were committed to maintaining cultural integrity and encouraging community ownership of the project.

Project Activities

The young people had the opportunity to work with local Aboriginal artists and Aboriginal community members to develop a contemporary visual and performing arts interpretation of the story of the Rainbow Serpent, whose resting place is Boobera Lagoon near Moree.

The pilot used festival activities to develop skills in music, writing and dance over a period of 20 weeks.
The project reached approximately 45 young people with a core group of 20. Work groups included a girls' contemporary Aboriginal dance class, a boys' traditional dance troupe, a visual arts group and a street theatre/ music group.

Project Outcomes

Students with previously high truancy rates, attended school more regularly as a result of participating in the project. One girl, who had not attended school for over a year, decided to return as she thought school might be different now and she wanted to undertake a visual and performing arts course.

There was a fourfold reduction in suspensions and referrals during the Strategic Pilot Project.

There was a noticeable change in the participants' attitude to authority, particularly after the project moved away from the school. The School Principal believed this was partly due to the fact that the students were not ordered and marched around as they are at school. He described the project as 'organised chaos', which could not work in a school environment with its diverse groups of young people.

Local Aboriginal community elders conveyed the stories to the young people and were involved in negotiations about ways of repackaging traditional stories in a contemporary way.

The sense of community ownership led to the communities wanting to see a course such as this continue. They want the course to be comparable with other vocational visual and performing arts courses.

The project drew wide public support from figures such as the Mayor, the past General Manager of Council, The Aboriginal Education Consultative Group and local business people. The project's Steering Committee had a diverse membership drawn from the local Aboriginal community, government community agencies and the education sector.

There was significant in-kind and financial support for the project, e.g. free use of premises, donation of equipment and materials and recruitment of volunteers to make costumes and props.

Success Factors

To overcome restrictions imposed by the school environment, the project coordinator relocated the project to the local Police Citizens Youth Club and basketball stadium. Attendance rates increased dramatically in the less formal environment and led quickly to the young people developing a sense of ownership and identification with the project.

The Project Coordinator, tutors and community members had high expectations of the participants and their performance abilities. This contributed to the high attendance rates.

The young participants saw the cultural experience as important and felt that the Aboriginal tutors were not just helping the teachers, but were sincerely interested in them.

The project drew on the experience of the local Aboriginal Community and recognised the expertise of local artists and the community's elders. The fact that the Rainbow Serpent story is a significant local story added to the uniqueness of the project.

The participants had a high level of ownership of the project, and through it gained confidence in their own potential. Because they could explore their local stories in a contemporary context they could bring together issues and subjects important to them. The project gave them a sense of kinship and cultural belonging that did not conflict with their own social and cultural realities.

Possible Improvements

Access to a bus to transport participants to venues would have reduced reliance on public transport and increased attendance rates.

Particularly in the early stages of the project, there were problems with the availability of venues. Continuity of venue from the very start would have enabled tutors to keep participants more focused.

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