One of Australia’s largest and oldest girls’ boarding schools, Fairholme College, is well practiced in building rapport with their boarding families, who are often coming to them from far-flung country properties.

But an entirely new approach has had to be developed to connect with the families of another very special cohort of students: those from remote Indigenous communities.

In addition to a general Indigenous student population, the college currently has five boarders from “community” – including Woorabinda in central Queensland, Kowanyama in the Gulf of Carpentaria and Cherbourg in the South Burnett.

Fairholme has a dedicated Indigenous support teacher, Laura McDonagh [pictured above with Fairholme College students], who provides tailored support to the five students at school and is also the dedicated point of contact for their families.

Laura’s relationship with the students and their families begins well before enrollment, with multiple meetings and conversations, many of which take place in the family’s homes and involve several Fairholme staff.

“You really need to earn trust,’’ Laura says, “and travelling to community is a genuine show of the school’s commitment and support.

“Deciding to send their children to us for their high school education is a huge decision for these families, but it’s not just a matter of getting the family on side, often you need to engage with an entire community as well and prove to them over time that you are genuine.”

Around-the-clock support

Once the students are on campus, Laura is on call 24/7 for both the girls and their families.

“I don’t see this as a neat little 8am-4pm role,’’ she says.

“These students come to us with a set of unique strengths and diverse experiences and each community has their own challenges that we need to work with, in order for the girls to engage successfully in education.

“They need consistent and strong personal relationships and I’m very prepared to provide that.’’

In 2019-2020 Fairholme College embarked on an Independent Schools Queensland Research in Schools project, with added funding support from the Queensland Independent Schools Parents Network, to trial new parent engagement practices with their indigenous families and for staff to undergo specialist training.

In it for the long haul

Principal Dr Linda Evans says there is no one neat answer for what works and the school is prepared to keep tweaking their approach.

“This is a long-term project and there are no short cuts – we’ve come a great way, but we have a long way to go too.

“But what we do know is that it’s worthwhile because before we can support a student effectively, their family needs to feel well supported too.’’