The Principal’s Story – Keith Spencer
It’s an interesting community. I actually loved it. One thing I found was that the people wanted to be involved with the school. They made sure that they let me know that when I arrived there. I was very keen to engage with them in any way shape or form.
One of our managers from the Regional Office, Edie Wright, was fantastic. She’d been a Principal at that same school. She was helpful nurturing a relationship between myself and the community.
It’s a very slow process. People have got to see you and speak to you and get to know you in a slow way. Slowly the trust develops on both sides. That’s how it evolved. I was able to get a lot more Aboriginal people, local people, working in the school. We were able to get a little bit of extra funding and things like that.
How did the art project come about?
My wife had an art gallery many years ago in country Victoria. She’s a bit of an artist herself even though she says she’s not. We had a few high school girls who wanted to do a project. We asked them if they wanted to paint on some concrete between what was the Home Economics room and the Grade 6 room. That concrete had cracked so they thought each student could paint a set area. They’d paint the cracks black and then they’d have their own area to decorate.
The girls didn’t know what to paint. They told us “we’ve never been taught by our family. We want to know, but we just paint things like we see on telly and in the magazines.” Then Katie, my wife, developed an idea of getting the community involved.
When you set out, what were the outcomes that you were looking for?
To be honest it was purely attendance at first. I would use any carrot I possibly could to get those children through the door. These were young girls. They ranged in age from of 12 to 16.
What were the approvals and sign offs that you needed to organise?
It is the Principal’s responsibility to go through every aspect of it. I negotiate it with parents and community for their approval firstly. Then it’s through the regional office for me to get the travel approved. Of course, because there was travel it falls very much back on the Principal.
It’s basically the Principal who ensures that everything is safe for all students. That’s the number one priority. David was absolutely fantastic and very generous with the marketing of the students’ exhibition. He spoke to the students about that so it was very clear. He was always available to talk to parents and elders.
We also took two elders down, Nada and Penny, down to the exhibition. Edie Wright opened the exhibition. She was the manager of Aboriginal Education.
It is the Principal’s responsibility is to ensure that it is all above board and safe for the children.
What do you think made the project so successful?
David. Purely and simply. His manner and the way he negotiated with the school and with the mentors. It was also the way he spoke to the mentors and how he explained things to them. The way he worked in with our teachers and even myself. It was fantastic.
David had a profile in the community. He’s had an ongoing relationship with the Wangkatjungka artists over a number of years. For me it was all totally positive. From what I saw in the relationship that he had with the elders and the students. That was just brilliant.
You sometimes hear communities saying they get ripped off by galleries. But I certainly wouldn’t say that about David and our experience with Japingka. He was open and honest with the girls. Everything that was done for that exhibition was done professionally and beautifully. Everything was first class.
What advice would you have for Principals who might be thinking about doing something similar with their community?
You’ve got to know your community and who to speak to. This means doing a bit of research yourself. You need to find the artists and talk to people around the school. It might be the art teacher in the school, but not necessarily. There might be teachers and AIEOs who have an ability to encourage the students.
Projects like these don’t just have to be initiated by community. It could come from within the school as well to develop those students and work with the gallery. Because the gallery is what really made it. It was brilliant the way they put it together.
As a project to assist with higher levels of attendance you’d recommend it?
Oh, absolutely, but we were fortunate too. Don’t forget we had quality artists out there. We had a quality person in David Wroth who actually worked with and assisted us. The end goal, the carrot at the end was enormous. They all got a trip to Perth, the school paid for that.
There is a cost factor, but sometimes it goes beyond the dollar. It’s actually more about what the benefit is for the child and their future.