Pathways to education

If you hated school the idea of returning to education or training can be overwhelming. Youth programs that offer help in returning to learning are having a big impact in Melbourne’s west.

On Monday mornings young people at Wyndham Community and Education Centre (WCEC) in Melbourne’s west are crowded around cooking toast and pouring cereal, enjoying the free healthy breakfast donated by the local Sikh community. On Tuesday afternoons, a youth lawyer is on hand to give advice and help them navigate and interact with the legal system. On Wednesdays and Fridays, NOSH mobile food service arrives to hand out free nutritious lunches along with advice on staying healthy.

The Centre offers a range of Youth Services programs to help young people to re-engage with work and education and these visiting youth services form part of a web of support to help them stay on track.

The ‘Reconnect’ program at the Centre is a one-on-one service that supports early school leavers in overcoming obstacles on the path to study, training or work.

It’s a path 16 year old Hayden Giddings has taken. He left school at the beginning of Year 10 hoping to get a job.

‘School was too hard. I couldn’t do it. They just wrote things up on the board and I couldn’t follow. I didn’t do my homework and I didn’t go very much.’

When he did go back he realised he had just gotten further and further behind. ‘I dropped out and thought I might get a job.’

But after four months of unemployment, a local youth agency referred him to Reconnect. Once enrolled, he attended WCEC one day a week for 10 weeks to work on his anger management skills and self esteem. ‘I learned about cooking, budgeting, shopping, things I didn’t know how to do before. The anger management really helped. Now I’m more calm and I try not to get angry and to take a breath and relax.’

After the support of Reconnect, Hayden felt ready to take the next step and enrolled in the foundation year of the Centre’s Victorian Certificate of Applied Learning (VCAL) program. VCAL is an alternative option to VCE with a ‘hands on’ learning focus and this year over 120 students have enrolled. VCAL students can put together a study program that suits their needs, with many students interested in going on to vocational education, apprenticeships or work.

‘When I started I was nervous that I’d be judged but I’ve made good friends. It’s beautiful here, it’s so much better. Teachers explain, they help, there’s less pressure and it’s a smaller environment. At my old school I liked to muck around. I used to think “I am dumb”. Now I do my work, focus and listen to my teachers. And I’m getting smarter and thinking about the future now. I wasn’t before. I really want to do something like engineering or carpentry. At school in woodwork I was always up the front, coming first. I loved it. So I want to pass Year 10 and get an apprenticeship. If I don’t then I’ll come back here next year and do Year 11.’

‘At school I was always nervous about asking for help. Now I think, “I don’t know everything and it’s OK to ask questions.” Asking for help and asking questions is how you learn.’

Even though classes don’t start till 9 am, Hayden gets to school most days before 8 o’clock. After classes are over, he spends the rest of the day at the Centre catching up on work.

‘My favourite thing has been reconnecting with maths. At school I didn’t know or care about it. Now I know I need it for things like measurements and I’ve got a different attitude. I really enjoy work-related skills but I find literacy is still a struggle. But now I get all my work done. I take it home and finish it there.

Hayden notices other differences in himself. ‘Before I never bothered about cleaning up at home but now I’ve got more respect, I cook and I clean. I come here every day and I’m punctual. I’m a different person.’

‘I used to be a bit of a smart arse to teachers and now I’m much more respectful. I’ve learned that the way you treat others is the way they treat you, so they respect me back.’

His advice for other young people wanting to leave school early? ‘Don’t drop out. School is important for life. You have to learn about stuff and you can’t just learn it off the Internet. School is important because it makes a difference to your future.’

 

Daniella Podesta was a quiet and under-confident 15 year old Year 9 student at a large local secondary college. School was a struggle. She found it hard to keep up with the work and dreaded each new assignment.

‘Even if I had a week to do it in I would get really stressed because I wanted to do it right but the teachers always seemed too busy to give me any extra help. Sometimes I felt they didn’t care.’

‘I used to hate school. I used to think “I’m going to do nothing with my life”.’

She heard about the VCAL program at Wyndham from a couple of friends who’d done it and they said it was great. ‘I was really struggling. I went home and said to Mum, “I can’t do it anymore. If I can’t move to the VCAL program I want to drop out”.’

Daniella was shy at first but now she has blossomed. She enjoys the relaxed atmosphere, the small class sizes and the extra attention from teachers.

‘Everyone helps each other. Not just the teachers but the other students in Foundation, Intermediate and Seniors, we all mix together and we pool ideas.

‘School just meant doing the work to me before. Now learning is fun, there’s lots of laughing and it’s helped me a lot. Once you relax you can learn more. I’m enjoying school now. I used to think I was dumb as, but now I think I can do whatever I try to do. Now I daydream about the future.’

Daniella is quietly confident that she’ll pass her Year 12 and the future’s looking bright.

‘Now I feel like I’ve got so many more options.’

Daniella laughs. ‘Now the only time I get in trouble is for talking too much. But that’s shows I’ve got good communication skills doesn’t it?’

‘Here it’s a lot less stressful, the teachers have more time to fully explain things to me. They really care and are always available.’

 

Teresa Vizintin VCAL & Youth Manager at WCEC says ‘People often assume that our VCAL students are not in mainstream school because they’ve been naughty or have been expelled. But many are kids who have had their school attendance interrupted by frequent family moves or homelessness or because they are carers with very little support or they have had medical or mental health issues themselves. Some kids find mainstream schools with their uniforms, bells and overall formality difficult to manage. So we have a real mix of advantaged and disadvantaged students who’ve chosen to be here and want to be here.’

‘What we do really well is understand what each young person cares about and we actively assist them to reach their goals. We work closely with individual students on attendance, educational programs, progress and welfare and we can respond quickly and put supports into place for students who need it.’

‘We all get to know each other very well. The staff and the students are very respectful towards one another. We spend time interacting with our young people, even when we’re on yard duty.

‘One of our former students, who was homeless when he first came here, is now in his final year of a carpentry apprenticeship and was recently given an apprentice of the year award. He comes back and talks to our students saying if it wasn’t for this course he’d be in jail. Instead he’s working and a positive contributing community member,’ Teresa says.

‘We’re very proud of our kids’ success. We say that every young person starting here is offered a fresh start – a new journey. At times the kids find this difficult to believe because of their past experiences, but they quickly learn that being here at Wyndham CEC is a team effort. Here they have adults to guide them, it’s a whole team approach’.

Top down commitment is the key, Teresa says. ‘I believe that the success of the programs here is due to the support our CEO who is very passionate about the work we do with young people.’

‘We are so proud of our students. Students like Hayden and Daniella arrived feeling embarrassed and scared and not saying a word. From the staff point of view our reward is seeing this wonderful growth and positive change in our students and watching them coming to believe in themselves and embracing their education with an appreciation of lifelong learning.’

‘I’ve got four children of my own and they’re always telling other people mum’s got 120 kids. We’re like family here. I’m always telling people I have the best job in the world.’

 

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