A whole community nurtured
"It's about giving them a challenge and saying, 'Don't give up'. We need them to believe in themselves."
Margaret Mulcahy, executive principal, Coonamble High School
When Margaret Mulcahy arrived at Coonamble High School at the start of 2013, she was confronted by drains and toilets that were not working, furniture that was scuffed and broken and a library that was under resourced and chaotic.
“People had no sense of identification as a whole community,” says the veteran educator and former senior administrator in the Department of Education.
The poverty and low expectations that hung over the Coonamble community were mirrored in the school buildings.
Ms Mulcahy saw that meaningful education for her 210 students – more than 60% of whom are Aboriginal – would be impossible until their individual and collective wellbeing were better addressed.
She set about making changes, first appointing a head teacher for wellbeing, under whose guidance the rest of the staff are learning to introduce the principles of positive psychology into daily interactions with and between students.
“A very large number of our kids have mental health issues – some diagnosed, some not,” says Ms Mulcahy, the school’s executive principal. “There are high levels of depression and anxiety among the students.
“Violence and domestic violence are big issues in the wider community, and students are impacted by that. I see them as being in a state of trauma, with a heightened state of response.”
She observed how casual remarks quickly escalated into confrontation; lashing out physically was not unusual. “Their reaction is quite forceful,” says Ms Mulcahy.
That, she says, is unsurprising given the wider traumas of the Central West town, two hours north of Dubbo. “There’s been a history of suicide in the town, and there is a heightened awareness because of the drought,” she says. This has manifested itself in extreme drug and alcohol use, an all too familiar story in many country towns gripped by drought and unemployment.
Every morning at school, students meet with their year group and a dedicated team of staff who greet them, check on their wellbeing, and ensure they are equipped for the day and had breakfast.
Weekly wellbeing lessons augment those general messages with discussions about particular types of problems the students may encounter, and strategies to deal with them. They learn about how emotions translate into responses and actions, and how to steer a negative encounter on to a better course.
“This strong and planned focus isn’t traditionally something you find in all schools, but I wanted that here,” says Ms Mulcahy. “It makes students more reflective and skills them up. It empowers them and gives them connectedness to school and to adults.”
During one wellbeing lesson, part of the 2014 program, a group of Year 9 students discussed online bullying, and the types of behaviour that could minimise it. “Don’t write a status about another person,” one volunteered. “Don’t write pointless stuff.”
Their teacher amplified the message. “Everyone has the right to be respected,” she said.
Ms Mulcahy has more scope to take direct action in her students’ interests than many other principals. Coonamble is one of 15 Connected Communities schools established in 2013, all in disadvantaged towns in rural and regional NSW. Their principals have authority to work across government departments and with external agencies to secure the services and support their students need to achieve positive outcomes in their lives.
Ms Mulcahy has brokered an arrangement with the community-managed child and family services agency UnitingCare Burnside at Dubbo, from which a counsellor and trainee counsellor attend the school one day a fortnight, to support students with more serious social or mental health needs. Families too can use the service, which supplements the school’s own part-time counsellor.
Ms Mulcahy works closely with the Coonamble Family Wellbeing Project, run by the Commonwealth-funded Western NSW Medicare Local.
She is also working with the local Aboriginal Medical Service, in the hope of establishing an on-site wellbeing centre where some of the students’ physical health problems – including chronic poor nutrition – could be addressed.
Ultimately she would like the school to become a hub for students’ health and wellbeing services. “We want the child’s wellbeing and academic focus here as a holistic approach,” she says. “We need to track what services they’re accessing.”
Already the school documents all student referrals it makes to external services and all interactions with parents. The community, Ms Mulcahy says, understands the rationale and is supportive. Attendance is slowly improving and HSC successes in 2013 included one first-in-state result.
Positive risk taking to explore new ways of doing things is becoming a common occurrence at the school.
In 2014, Coonamble’s students will go to camp in Sydney. This is the first time the school has insisted everyone attend. Those in Year 10, now part of the new Senior School, will participate in a physically and psychologically demanding
Outward Bound program in preparation for their entry into the HSC program at Coonamble High School. The high school is also taking a new, more supportive approach to the HSC, which these students will experience.
The new Middle School structure focuses on younger students and their transition to secondary school. These students will be part of an outdoor education program that will foster team work, confidence building, problem solving, decision making and building resilience.
“It’s a bit of a gamble,” says Ms Mulcahy, who hopes it may help insulate them from “the hopelessness that keeps coming back in. It’s about giving them a challenge and saying, ‘Don’t give up’. We need them to believe in themselves.”