Jarjum College opens amid hopes and concerns

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REDFERN: Jarjum College, a new independent Catholic school for Indigenous children, was officially opened on April 12 before a crowd of over 500 people. On the site of the former St Vincent’s Presbytery in Redfern Street an old building has been transformed into a small school with a current intake of 20 students.

In attendance were a number of prominent guests including NSW Governor Marie Bashir, Federal Minister for Education Peter Garrett, Lord Mayor Clover Moore, Archbishop George Pell and Local Member Tanya Plibersek.

In the crowd were parents and students from St Aloysius and St Ignatius colleges, the Jesuit schools that have been closely involved with the conception and setup of the new school. In addition there were many interested people from the local community. Amongst them was a small but vocal group of critics of Jarjum College who began by challenging Master of Ceremonies Warren Mundine’s welcome to the Aboriginal community with a resounding retort: “Where are they?”

After a welcome dance performed by Jarjum students, Jesuit Provincial Steve Curtin told the crowd that the idea for the school emanated from local Aboriginal parents in support of a new school to engage children in a positive spirit of learning. “The church is deeply committed to working with the First Peoples of this country. Our mission is to share with students and their families the very best teaching and pastoral care where their culture and values are respected,” Fr Curtin said.

Peter Garrett reminded the crowd of important milestones in Aboriginal political history, including the Freedom Ride of 1965, the Referendum of 1967, the Tent Embassy, the National Apology in 2008 and finally the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Recognition Act. He recognised the “spirit of creativity and survival” within the Redfern community itself as well as acknowledging the work of Fr Ted Kennedy and Mum Shirl.

On Jarjum College, the Education Minister lauded the involvement of the Jesuits: “I know this College, drawing on the Jesuit and Catholic experience in Aboriginal Primary Education and Aboriginal Outreach programs will ensure that the pastoral and educational needs of the students here will be amply met.” He went on to emphasise the importance of education in addressing Aboriginal issues: “Education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students is nothing less than a passport out of poverty. It’s the great enabler and the pathway to achievements in life.”

Mr Garrett took time to recall his long involvement in Aboriginal issues: “I was thinking yesterday as I was preparing for today what a huge part of my working life has involved interaction with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.” His reminiscing about “a band called Midnight Oil” and the recording in the streets of Redfern of “Beds Are Burning” reminded many of the spectators of a time when Peter’s voice was heard loud and clear, unshackled by party politics and spin.

In officially opening the school Governor Bashir thanked the children and the work of Principal Beatrice Sheen as well as mentioning her own family connections to Redfern through her grandparents who lived in the area.

After working for a number of months at the new school, Lottie Ceissman is now one of its most vocal critics. She was recently dismissed from her role. As well as believing that she has been unfairly treated in her dismissal, she is also very critical of the direction that the school is taking and has raised strong concerns regarding the present quality of education at the school. “The Jesuits have come in with a ‘top-down’ attitude,” she said.

“They haven’t involved the local community. You cannot run a school like this. They are not learning reading, writing and arithmetic. They are learning how to do dot paintings. The principal is just trying to make it too ‘aboriginalised’. They don’t even have a proper play yard. I don’t want my job back. It’s an unsustainable place. They started 26 kids and now they are down to 20.”

Ms Ceissman believes the funding system for the college with “a whole lot of people from St Aloysius and the North Shore” is not sustainable, largely because of the unreliability of the volunteers and the need for the principal to spend so much of her time seeking donations rather than focussing on the children’s needs.

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