There are bright pink and blue streamers laced down the hallway and silver balloons pinned to the brick walls. Later in the day, a few pizzas and bottles of coke will be served. While the open day at Warakirri College aims to be an upbeat affair, the reality is that this small, alternative school in Fairfield is also a place that takes on a lot of anguish.
Sitting amongst the throng in a baseball cap and sporting face piercings is Stanley Aguilera, his life a roll call of everything troubled – sexually abused as a child, bullied at school, a truant, family issues, drug and alcohol problems and struggling with gender identity issues.
Two years on, the ebullient 19-year-old is now not only clean of drugs and beginning the process of becoming a man but is back in school with the hope of eventually becoming a youth worker. “Top of the class,” he smiles.
Jason Quintal, a chatty 18-year-old from Bonnyrigg about to finish his HSC, also feels back on track.
“When I first came here, I honestly thought I wouldn’t be able to do anything in life,” says the self- confessed “class clown”, who is now planning on becoming a chef or getting into computing. For him, the school, which only has 50 students, has also taught him how to be part of the wider community.
Waraikirri College – on the first floor of a non-descript building in Sydney’s southwest -- is a “second chance” school for Grade 10 to 12 students who’ve left the mainstream system because of problems ranging from expulsion to bullying to homelessness.
While the Department of Education and Communities say principals are required to find an appropriate alternative educational placement for excluded students, many of the students at Warikirri say they were let go and that no other school would take them.
The government-funded charity MTC Australia founded its first “second chance” school in Parramatta in 2007 and opened the Fairfield branch in 2012 - they cost about $1 million a year to run. With no school uniforms, no school fees and free food for those who haven’t eaten, the charity say they have an HSC completion figure of over 90 per cent.
Salote, 20, too had her own problems. After falling into truancy, a marijuana addiction and crimes that saw her locked up in juvenile detention, the pretty 20-year-old Fijian is now on path to finish Grade 12. During her time in jail, lead teacher Marilyn Paul or “Maz” as she is affectionately known, sent Salote her school work.
“I kept at her,” says Paul, who had a 30-year career as a teacher in the public education system and started working at the college three years ago.
Later in the day, a group of 45 primary school students take a tour of the school as part of a program where kids visit different workplaces. In grades five and six, these children have already been identified as ones that will struggle through the education system, largely because their parents have lived on social security over the long-term, a problem Paul describes as the “Centrelink mentality.”
“I just try to get them to achieve more than what they’ve been told they can achieve,” says Paul.