The mood, however, changes markedly as soon as we enter the gates. A sense of calmness prevails, the bite in the wind eases and it suddenly feels warmer as the students, or young people as they are referred to by the staff, are individually greeted.
Some of the greetings are short and some are lengthy. Yet one thing is consistent - all conversations are distinct and discuss the student’s unique personalities – the types of personalities that don’t always fit into mainstream schooling environments.
Head of Campus Kelly Anderson is one of the staff at the gate. With a disarming Moodle Loki in tow, Ms Anderson explains how what may seem like a simple greeting means so much more. It’s a way for staff to check on those students fresh from a weekend away. “It allows us to check-in and ensures we are engaging with students potentially at risk of not fulfilling a day of schooling for various reasons, with real one-to-one individual engagement”.
Year 10 student Elijah said the morning welcome from the staff was very important. “The welcome into the gate, followed by the pastoral care at the start of the day and having breakfast helps me settle into the day”.
“Compared to my old school, here I have real relationships with the staff. We work together, and they take time to make sure we are okay”.
Since opening its doors in 2019 the St Laurence Flexible Learning Centre at Broadmeadow has aided young people to re-engage with learning and community.
Created in partnership with Edmund Rice Education Australia (EREA), the centre is the first of its type in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle. The centre provides educational opportunities and supports students who, for a range of complex reasons, have not remained in mainstream education.
The Director of Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, Gerard Mowbray explains that the centre was created to address a real need within our local community for flexible learning.
“It is also provides an opportunity to respond to the needs of our young people, which is in keeping with the mission of the Catholic Church,” he said.
Ms Anderson said that rather than having set rules, the centre operated with four key principles – honesty, respect, participation, and safe and legal– in an environment where staff and students had a similar status, a sense of common ground and shared responsibility.
“Students must be open to change and willing to give it a go,” she said.
When issues do arise, Ms Anderson says staff work collaboratively with young people their families and carers deal with matters and share responsibility for the outcome.
Businesses all over Australia are crying out for more workers. There are currently more than 423,000 job vacancies according to recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
The St Laurence Flexible Learning Centre caters for young people completing Stage 5 (Years 9 and 10) with opportunities for them to complete curriculum and non-curriculum programs, including vocational education training (VET) courses.
The centre is also the only flexible learning provider in NSW that offers students the opportunity for a Record of School Achievement at the end of Stage 5, similar to mainstream education.
Ms Anderson said flexible programs were designed for each student and included on-site and off-site work. Students are empowered via “independence in the classroom”, with each student given the responsibility to drive their own learning pathway.
With recent reports highlighting the current shortage of skilled workers in Australia, the opportunity for these young people to acquire work-ready skills and VET qualifications while at the centre is more valuable than ever.
Year 9 student Jimmy has thrived in this environment and with a construction white card already under his belt says he is “looking forward to getting into a trade” when he finishes at the centre. “I enjoy the real-life practical skills on offer here, the staff go out of their way to support me,” he said.
Since enrolling at St Laurence, Elijah too has received his white card as well as a Certificate 2 in construction and a barista course among others. He says that making the move from a mainstream school to the centre has been the right choice for him. “I get more out of the learning here. The smaller classes and individualised programs support what I want to do,” he said.
Elijah says that he is also grateful for the support he receives beyond the school’s gates. “I have had the opportunity to go mountain bike riding at Awaba, Holmesville, Dungog and Glenrock,” he said. “The teachers take time out to help you”.
Ms Anderson says the centre’s elective program, which includes mountain bike riding as well as range of other activities, not only keeps students active but improves social interaction, teaches important life skills and helps the students positively channel negative feelings.
With an emphasis on acceptance, support and transitioning to adulthood and meaningful employment, the future looks bright for the students at the St Laurence Flexible Learning Centre. Even a cold westerly in August can’t pervade the warmth inside the gates.