School’s back in for disconnected

CatholicCare Director Gary Christensen acted quickly in 2018 when the Principal of St Mary’s Catholic College, Gateshead, Larry Keating, identified a student cohort disconnecting from school. It was a result of a range of reasons including social disadvantage, mental health and behavioural problems, and the St Mary’s counsellors and learning support staff were at capacity.

Many of the issues troubling the students were happening away from school, or “beyond the gates”, and Mr Keating sought a CatholicCare social worker to engage with them and their families from a case-management perspective to allow reconnection with the St Mary’s community.

With the great efforts of Lucy Karbowiak supporting Mr Keating and the St Mary’s staff to bring the pilot program to life, Beyond the Gates was so successful Mr Christensen approached Diocese Director of Schools, Gerard Mowbray, about taking the program to other schools, especially in the Manning and the Upper Hunter.

“CatholicCare was aware of the social disadvantage in those regions,” says Mr Christensen. “The expansion of Beyond the Gates reaffirms the partnership with the Catholic Schools Office under the many parts, one body, one mission banner. For too long, CatholicCare has worked separately to the CSO and vice-versa, so we are really trying to work in partnership, to complement each other and not compete.”

Beyond the Gates casework statistics from St Mary’s showed an increase in full days attended of 22.36 per cent, and a decrease of up to 37.87 per cent of full days off. Students also cited the positive aspects, with up to 20 per cent self-reporting an improvement in wellbeing during their time in the program, while parents observed an increase in wellbeing of up to 60 per cent. Overall, parents reported a 95.8 per cent satisfaction with the program.

Ms Karbowiak also introduced a therapy dog to facilitate rapport and provide a calming environment as children and young people spoke with her about their difficulties.The pilot at St Mary’s was for students in Years 7 to 10, but it soon became obvious many primary school-aged siblings were experiencing the same disengagement.

“The transition to high school becomes even more complex when you're dealing with those sorts of issues,” says Mr Christensen. “We have expanded the new model to include Years 5 and 6 of the Catholic feeder schools to the high schools, allowing us to operate in a systemic way with the family. Physically going beyond the gates allows a whole-of-family approach.”

Once a student is reconnected after a case-management period, the school counsellor takes over the maintenance. “There's that real cross-referral process between us and the school counsellor,” says Mr Christensen. “It's complementary, not competitive.”

The Upper Hunter is known for entrenched disadvantage, and principals there are keen to adopt the program. Aaron Moon, Principal of St James’ primary at Muswellbrook, is co-ordinating its introduction. He describes a worrying prevalence of suicidal ideation among young people in the region.

Now the families working in partnership with Beyond The Gates will have access to CatholicCare psychologists for counselling and assessment services from Singleton and Muswellbrook.

“Part of CatholicCare’s remit is to build a stronger kinder and fairer society in our local communities, and we’re conscious the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle is not all about Newcastle,” says Mr Christensen. “The Upper Hunter is part of the Diocese and needs services, and it makes sense for us to provide those services.”

The region has experienced a long drought, bushfires, and now COVID-19 and the trauma resulting from these events cannot be underestimated. The Upper Hunter also has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the state. “You put all those things in a melting pot and it's no wonder students need additional support beyond the gates,” says Mr Christensen.

The Manning, too, experiences a range of disadvantage and the devastating impacts of the bushfires linger. CatholicCare’s Taree Community Kitchen has served more than 30,000 meals in the past three years, and a similar operation recently commenced in Forster.

“That tells you what's going on,” says Mr Christensen. “There are a lot of people below the poverty line. And it's a slippery slope for all of us. Most of us are only two or three paycheques away from needing to go to that kitchen. People forget that.”

Despite achieving commendable HSC results, St Clare’s at Taree is the only Catholic high school servicing a huge area, and the student body experiences significant issues resulting from disadvantage and vulnerability. As a farming area, the drought, the bushfires and COVID have exacerbated people's mental health problems.

St Clare’s Principal Peter Nicholls says the Beyond the Gates program is a wonderful initiative that will add to the support his school offers to its students and families.

“The Manning is an area short on services,” Mr Nicholls said. “The addition of a qualified social worker to St is very welcome and we thank CatholicCare for its support of the school and the Manning Great Lakes area.”  

“CatholicCare is trying to be part of that system that ensures the vulnerable don't fall through the cracks,” says Mr Christensen. “It’ important we remember that some parents are just doing it tough. They’re absolutely pulling their hair out. And then finally, someone says, ‘hey, we can help … we can help you beyond the gates’.

“Stronger together … we’re one Diocese, and we have two agencies working together for one really good outcome.”  

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