Refugee school student program awarded for excellence

14 Sep 2017


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SBS World News Radio: A Sydney school has been recognised for its innovative program to help refugee students thrive.

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Chester Hill High School's "Refugee Welcome Program" helps students, some of whom have suffered unimaginable hardship in their home countries, prepare for high school, via its Intensive English Centre.

Ninety per cent of the students at Chester Hill High School in south western Sydney, come from non-English-speaking backgrounds, and a diverse range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

Hania Zahra is one of those students.

The 16 year-old explains the difficulty of arriving in Australia from Pakistan.

"It was hard transitioning from a country that you've always been living in, where you grew up. You have to leave your family and the best friends that you had living there. The main reason for coming here was that the education in our country wasn't great."

Sara Akbeek has a similar story.

She arrived in Australia in 2015 from war-torn Syria, via a few years in Lebanon.

Akbeek says she knew hardly any English when she arrived in Australia.

"When I first stepped in the airport I actually got dizzy because they were all speaking English and I had never heard English before, except in the movies. I learned the whole English, I didn't even know how to get to any store. I couldn't even order food or anything."

But in the two years since her arrival Sara has moved far beyond ordering a meal.

After a year working with Chester Hill High's Intensive English Centre, Sara was ready to go to the main high school, and her English is nearly word perfect.

Akbeek has just finished her H-S-C, studying Korean, among other subjects, and in a few short weeks will graduate from the Australian high school system.

Akbeek says there have been no problems with acceptance since her arrival from Syria.

"One of my involvements, I got into a creative writing competition last year and I surprisingly got the first place for one of the categories and I am so proud about it. I'm in the community and I feel like I am Australian."

Chester Hill High School Principal Zena Dabaja says the school has a particular focus on new arrivals.

The school has been awarded for its efforts by the New South Wales Education Department.

Ms Dabaja says Chester Hill High focuses on developing the whole person, rather than just the student.

"We're a school that has a lot of heart and the students are just working really hard to make a success of themselves. And the teachers are being recognised for the amazing work they do every day, above and beyond the call of duty. Educators have a lot of challenges in the 21st century, they have got a lot of balls they need to juggle. Within our context, we take a holistic approach, so it's about developing the whole student. We're not just focussed on academics, but preparing the students for what's going to be a very challenging post-school environment. "

New South Wales Education Minister Rob Stokes says the second round of the Gonski Federal Government funding is designed to facilitate such initiatives in schools around Australia.

"There are obviously a whole series of challenges that those new arrivals face, so to have one of those common institutions, like a New South Wales public school, that can root that community and form those connections is absolutely crucial. And that's why it is so important to celebrate what Chester Hill has done."

The state Education Department has voiced its disappointment with its federal funding allocation under Gonski's second round, saying it falls short of original expectations.

But Department Secretary Mark Scott says he's still optimistic schools like Chester Hill can thrive under the funding model.

"We're putting a lot of the education funding now behind the school fence, so principals have good discretion to fund new programs, to fund new stuff appointments if they like to help drive the teaching and learning outcomes. I think in contrast to a long time ago, principals in government schools now have more funding, more discretionary funding to invest in priority areas for their local students."

Ninety-five million dollars has been allocated over the next five years, with funds dedicated to helping refugees settle in New South Wales.

Minister Stokes says a significant portion of those funds will apply to settling incoming students.




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