Balgo - episode 2

Published: May 17th 2008
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Luurnpa Catholic SchoolLuurnpa Catholic SchoolLuurnpa Catholic School

This is how the school fronts on to the community. (A luurnpa is a kingfisher bird.)
Getting to know Luurnpa Catholic School

When you think country school, maybe especially when you think remote outback school, you probably imagine a building with a couple of classrooms and perhaps another space for staff & meetings, etc. Well, Luurnpa Catholic School would provide a delightful surprise. It’s quite a substantial school with several air-conditioned classrooms, staffroom, computer room, cooking classroom, library, admin offices, kitchen/canteen, in-ground swimming pool, covered basketball court, climbing equipment & a grassed footy field. In close proximity to the school are the Brother’s 3 houses to the north, a line of about 10 teacher houses to the east & a few other teacher houses, a little more distant, to the south. The addition of fencing, secure doors, windows & gates, as well as intrusion alarms, sets up a school compound that protects it, to a large extent from would-be vandals.

Luurnpa stands as a bit of an oasis on an otherwise desolate landscape, providing several large trees and some large grassed areas. There is little visual evidence to suggest it has sustained much of the damage that other properties around the community have, and it seems to function pretty smoothly. I imagine it provides, for
School Basketball CourtSchool Basketball CourtSchool Basketball Court

Note the nice grassed foreground - there's not much lawn to be seen around Balgo.
many of the children, a good, reliable routine they might not otherwise see.

The school runs a kindergarten, 4 primary grades, a senior class and, at a different site across the community oval, an adult education centre. The school administration consists of Br Rick , the principal, Br Michael , the school administrator, Maggie the vice-principal. There are six class teachers: Maria in kinder; Maggie, Mary, Karen and Rosa for the primary grades, and Fiona, the secondary class. Other staff includes Lizzie, the librarian, Trisha (a “Share the Mission” volunteer from PNG teaching school RE & adult ed), Robert (school & adult ed computer). The classes also have Teacher’s Aides, community people to assist with language & student behaviour. Some others, currently on hand are Nick & Chas, two 18-year old NZ “Sharing the Mission” volunteers, who assist in primary classes & various other odd jobs. And then, there’s myself, working mainly with the senior class.

The first school bell of the day is sounded at 7.50am and there will normally be some kids there, at that time, looking for a Weet-Bix breakfast. The school has an enrolment of something like 120 students but the actual number of
Pool - closed for businessPool - closed for businessPool - closed for business

Heavy metal lid is dropped into place to prevent unauthorised drownings!
attendees on any one day (or time of day for that matter) can be a long way from this figure.
The next bell, at 8.20am, marks the start of class time. For the secondary class, the one I’m aligned with, Mathematics would be on first, then some Literacy work and maybe some sport/exercise before the 10.50am mangarri comes along. (Mangarri is food & the school provides all students with something to eat, usually a toasted sandwich & a portion of fruit.) The 11.00am bell marks the beginning of recess until 11.30am. After recess it will usually be science, SOSE, RE, maybe computer. Classes conclude at 2.00pm.

The secondary class is a group of about 20 students who are, nominally, years 7 through to 10. Their ability level, however, is a very different story - many equating to an academic level of more like year 4. There are a few kids who are regular attendees and are, comparatively, quite capable. The original plan for me, here, was to withdraw these ‘elite’ students from the senior class for a more intensive mathematics program, teach the entire class their science & also be involved in the delivery of the NALP literacy material,

A 2-classroom block adjacent to the grassed footy field.
and those other things like PE & sport. The problem was, however, the class size never stayed large enough to justify any specialist withdrawal. The biggest senior class I’ve seen to date is 17, the smallest 3, but the most common size 8 to 10. The class size fluctuates during the day, you may lose or pick up a couple after the morning recess, and some are likely to wander in, or out, during the two in-class sessions. This, of course, can be a very frustrating thing when you’re delivered most of yet another superbly planned lesson to have it diminished, by late arrivals, who need to caught up, while the others are trying to finish up - all at the same time. So Fiona and I share the class, freeing me up, at times, & allowing me to visit the other primary grades and observe, learn and help. I have been impressed by the NALP teaching I’ve been able to observe as these teachers seem to be pretty good exponents of the technique. The teaching isn’t easy, in fact, quite tiring, the constancy of picking up on those niggling little behaviours, quite apart from actually trying to teach the content is draining. The children’s attention span is quite limited; they tire quickly and will then sprawl over one another with many squabbles resulting.

The boys undergo ‘men’s business’ at around 12 or 13 years of age and tend to dissociate themselves from school and ignore women to a greater extent. (They might attend some adult education classes.) Many of the irregular attendees of the senior class will front from time to time, but most are not there to actively participate or cooperate, most can’t do this; it’s more to kill time, to provide humbug, to relieve the tedium of a day with no school. (The hope is that you will draw them into the activity before they notice it’s happened.) Many of these kids will not offer answers, and when pressed to do so, will either remain silent or will whisper at an inaudible level. I’ve had a couple of boys walk out on me when I’ve fronted up to them to press home my annoyance with either their disrespect or disruptive behaviour. You need to check outside the classroom now and again as there may be students loitering in the yard who need to be hustled into class. Class bells don’t necessarily mean much, a group of older boys were playing footy at recess & were still at it 15 minutes after & when interrupted by teachers ran as a gang around the school, into the girls toilets & then off the property via the (out of bounds) teacher’s housing area. There is, as such, a strong correlation between inability to do the work and the level of unacceptable behaviour - a phenomenon you would see in most schools.

On the whole, the students seem to me to be pretty good kids. Sure, many of these skinny kids are often dirty, sometimes smelly, and sometimes grossly snotty. But, as a secondary trained teacher not used of seeing primary grades in action, the behaviours I’ve witnessed in the primary classes here I don’t think would be all that atypical of suburban schools. The exception here being the tendency, of some kids, to scarper when the mood takes them and, perhaps, the tendency of boys to provide a lesser level of cooperation to the women teachers. The teachers tend to be loud, in fact one was miked-up, as there is quite a percentage of these kids suffering varying degrees of deafness due to the prevalence of ‘glue-ear’. The pace of the teaching needs to be appropriately slow to suit the capabilities of the kids, and curriculum goals need to be adapted for such an audience. The major goal here needs to be having the kids attending regularly. The major inhibiting factor to these children’s education is the lack of continuity brought about by frequent absences. We had the NAPLAN (literacy & numeracy testing) last week, in which students are expected to do 5 written papers of 40 to 60 minute duration. These are totally inappropriate for these kids - most could barely put pen to paper. It was important, however, they wrote their name & provided some scratchings on the page, as some funding comes out of these results.


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