Nautilus offers fresh start
An alternative high school in NSW is helping young people re-engage with education.
Shearna Russ used to wag school. When she did attend she was bullied and felt disconnected. ‘I used to sit in class but I wouldn’t do any work and I’d play up and get in a lot of trouble. I was going to drop out just as soon as I was old enough.’
But she’s hardly missed a day of school since switching to Nautilus College, an independent school set up by Mid North Coast Community College for young people disengaged from education.
At Nautilus, Shearna has turned over a new leaf. ‘It’s so much better. It’s like a second home. I come here and do my work and then I go home. I don’t run around all over the place like I used to.’
Poor school history
The school offers year 9 and 10 studies to young people who have dropped out of mainstream education and have a diagnosed disability. Most of the school’s students have disabilities says principal John Beaumont.
‘We have young people with autism, anxiety, depression, ADHD. And all of them are struggling to cope with their individual disability. Many are seeing psychologists or psychiatrists and most of them are on medication. Some have addictions to drugs or alcohol or have been involved with the justice system. So they can have real difficulty regulating their emotions and their actions.’
All have had negative or traumatic experiences of mainstream high school with a history of truancy or expulsion. Before they arrived at Nautilus their daily lives were unstructured and often chaotic.
New school, new start
But John sees big changes. Establishing a routine and a purpose, and experiencing a sense of achievement at school have a big impact. ‘Now all of them want jobs and want to progress. And they recognise that to get there they need education to be marketable.
‘Attendance is a wonderful measure of success. So is being polite and respectful towards others and being able to regulate your emotions.’
Having the chance to start afresh in a supportive environment is all that some need to take steps to a brighter future, John says. ‘They need to get help with their disabilities and they need a school that is safe, non-threatening and offers a calm environment.’
Different from mainstream schools
John says that the increasing demand for places in the school indicates a widespread problem and need in the community. In 2019, 19 students were enrolled, but demand meant they had to find larger premises. Currently 54 students are enrolled and numbers look set to rise again next year.
‘We are different from mainstream schools. Here students call teachers by their first names, and there are no uniforms and we don’t expel people. We are the last bastion for a lot of these students and if we fail then the student has to go back to a department school, often the same one they were expelled from.
‘Staff focus on building rapport and responding to the needs of individual students. We promote a culture of respect and we have open learning spaces where we are all together in one big room. We don’t have lessons as such but students work individually or in small groups.
‘We have academic booklets on a range of subjects from English and Maths to history with a diverse range of activities from easy to more difficult and students are encouraged to work at their own pace but we are also circulating through the room and offering to help.’
‘We treat every student as an individual. Each student has their own particular story and individual learning plans which we often adjust daily to build on their strengths and address each students’ particular needs.’ John Beaumont
Participating in adult education classes
Nautilus students can also participate in classes at the Community College. ‘We offer barista training, food handling courses and white card training so that our students have more certificated training at the end of year 10 than others in their age group.’ Apart from the qualifications, learning alongside other adults gives Nautilus students exposure to people from all walks of life and helps them develop confidence and communication skills.
John says that the commitment and expertise of the staff is the key to school’s success.
‘I have a fantastic team. They are wonderful staff and it would be impossible to run this place without that team effort.’
The atmosphere at Nautilus makes a big difference Shearna says. ‘You feel welcomed as soon as you come in here. We all work together and everyone knows everybody and the teachers are very helpful. I get on well with everyone else.
School inspires Shearna to dream big
‘I’ve surprised myself. I have PTSD so it’s been pretty hard dealing with anxiety and coming out of my bubble. I’ve gotten a job as a cleaner in a resort.
‘I’ve got money in my pocket. I enjoy the people I work with and the experience of learning new things. I really enjoy feeling independent.’
Shearna now has dreams for the future. ‘At mainstream school, I always wanted to be a nurse but I never thought it would happen. I was going to drop out as soon as I could in year 10. But once I came here I got really excited about finishing high school. I’ve got a lot of confidence now about my ability.’
‘I hope to see myself being a midwife or running my own daycare centre. I’ve got bigger dreams now.’
School opens doors that were closed
John says that when he met Shearna she was very introverted and completely disengaged from education, having been expelled from a number of schools. ‘Now she’s a member of our leadership team, she has a future, she is a fantastic young woman and those doors that used to be closed to her are now open.’
‘I keep coming back so I can get my education. I’ve woken up to myself and now I’m focussing on school and work. I’ve got a two week old brother at home so I want to be a good role model for him.’ Shearna Russ.
See the full issue of Quest 4, 2020