Gina Milgate explores the importance of relationships and leadership in developing empowering partnerships between schools and communities that help build capacity and cultural capital.
Schools are vital members of the community; however, they can sometimes be perceived as independent, isolated and disconnected from the communities they are located within. Similarly, schools may be seen as uncomfortable places for some people who may have had unpleasant educational and schooling experiences in the past.
There are many stories of how schools and the school environment have had a negative impact upon some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities. This impact has often been passed down through the generations and as a result, school and community relationships may be fragile or non-existent.
Encouragingly, there are many schools across Australia that are acknowledging, embracing and engaging the community they serve and as a result are having positive benefits for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities, as well as for schools and learners.
Teachers benefit from the cultural learning that occurs when collaborating with Indigenous people and infusing this learning into their teaching. Learners benefit by improving their academic, cultural, leadership, entrepreneurial and sporting potential. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities benefit by being empowered in contributing to teaching and learning.
Partnerships provide opportunities for schools to contribute to the social capital of the community and for the community to help build the cultural capital of schools.
Teachers can learn from families about the background, aspirations and strengths of the Indigenous learner. Families can learn about ways they can support their child to learn at home.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and community can support the school in building its cultural resources by supporting students and staff in their teaching and learning about local Indigenous cultures, people, perspective and knowledge.
There are a number of ways to connect First cultures with school cultures:
- Begin from a place of strength: focus on the potential strengths, interests, abilities, knowledge and capacities of each person, rather than their limits.
- Acknowledge the knowledge that exists in yourself, the school and community: demonstrate a genuine and passionate commitment to learn from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures.
- Engage to empower: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities are empowered when ideas, strategies and projects are developed by and with them.
- Invite Elders to do Welcome to Country at significant events and encourage students to do Acknowledgement of Country.
- Employ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the school in roles such as principal, assistant principal, community liaison, teacher, gardener or administration.
- Build a portal of resources that are related to Indigenous people and cultures to benefit all learners, staff and the community.
- Learn from Country on Country: venture outside the school gates to learn about culturally significant places and artefacts in the community.
- Reflect community values and aspirations in all facets of the school, including policies, school environment, personalised learning plans, decision making and curriculum.
Ultimately, partnerships should feel transformational and not transactional. Schools should feel more culturally enriched and communities should feel more empowered because of the partnership.
Without community participation and support, schools will find it difficult to demonstrate evidence of how they are valuing and meeting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers and Principals.
Meeting these standards help to achieve equitable outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander learners and for all learners to have the opportunity to embrace the world’s oldest living continuous cultures. ■
This article is based on the book chapter ‘Building empowering partnerships between schools and communities’ by Gina Milgate, in Learning and Teaching in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education, Third Edition, edited by Neil Harrison and Juanita Selwood (Oxford University Press, 2016).
The chapter also addresses the relevant rights and standards related to education and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and includes a case study of Coonamble Public School to show how the school and community can work effectively in partnership with Eldership, relationship, kinship and leadership.