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Vital school preparation

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PARENTAL involvement is playing a vital part in the success of a custom-made early childhood program preparing Aboriginal youngsters for school.

The 3A (Abecedarian Approach Australia) Project is a partnership involving the Gumala Aboriginal Corporation, The University of Melbourne and local schools.

Since launching at the Wakathuni Centre — a purpose-built early childhood education facility 30 kilometres from Tom Price in the Pilbara — the project has continued to gain momentum.

“[It] came from a need that was showing up in the data and with consultations with schools that there was an educational gap when [children from the Gumala homeland community] started to attend primary school,” Lynne Beckingham, the corporation’s general manager education, explains.

“So, we needed a program that was going to cater to this need, and we also needed a program that was suitable for Indigenous Australians.

Based on the Abecedarian Approach to early childhood education developed in the US more than 30 years ago, the 3A Project has been adapted specifically for Australia.

The head of the Abecedarian education movement, Dr Joseph Sparling, has been heavily involved with the Australian approach. “He’s on board with Gumala … and he’s with us every step of the way, which is great,” Beckingham says.

There are three elements to 3A that are all based on child and adult interaction: learning games, enriched care giving and conversational reading.

Rochelle Hooper was a teacher at the Wakathuni Centre when it launched in March 2012 and is now 3A coordinator. She tells Oz Teacher parents attend each session with their child and are a vital part of the program’s success.

“The parents are the child’s first teacher and most important teacher and we need to provide educational experiences for these children that are not only culturally appropriate, but led with the parent being the focus of the learning.

“We deal with children from birth to five-years-old, so it’s very much based on getting these children ready for school. We’ve currently got about 31 little people attending Wakathuni.

“We focus on skills like conversational reading … learning games which are based around social skills, early literacy and numeracy skills, and fine motor development skills.

“Most children attend every day. Little ones might come for half an hour with mum and then go home; others (like the ones that are ready to go to Kindy) may attend a session for two hours.

“We run for a maximum of three hours a day in the mornings, because that’s the optimal time and also because of the heat in the Pilbara.”

Hooper says the centre is starting to make a huge difference. “We had one little one with us all last year who attended Kindergarten this year and, through the testing we’ve done, he’s improved so much … he’s up with the other kids in the class, so the foundations that have been set are [strong].”

Beckingham explains the Wakathuni Centre works closely with Tom Price Primary School. “So, we’re forming I guess a sort of relationship with the school before parents and children actually attend.

“At the moment we employ teachers through the local school and we also employ local Indigenous champions to work within the program.”

She adds it has been such a success that the project is hoping to expand to at least another three locations in the Pilbara in 2014. “We’ve had great feedback. One of the reasons we’re expanding is that we’ve actually had schools approach us and say that they want to initiate the program.

“We’re also getting our parents in other locations asking for the program so that their children can access it as well.

“And [expansion] was our original plan, Wakathuni was our pilot model to get it going and work out what works and through that develop a model that we can utilise it in other communities.”

Gumala is a not-for-profit Aboriginal corporation that represents the Banyjima, Innawonga and Nyiyaparli language groups.

“The early childhood strategy is something that we believe will make a long-term difference,” Beckingham says. “We saw a need and we thought we’re not going to wait around for government, we’re going to get involved ourselves and then hopefully, when we have the evidence base from our own Australian research, influence government policy.”

She says, without the project, there simply would be no early education facilities for some of Gumala’s members living on homeland communities. “So, until the child is of school age they wouldn’t have received any assistance.

“I guess we definitely know that it’s a long-term strategy, we’re already seeing changes in the children now but we want to track them for many years [and] influence generational change.”

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