We’re at the Dunolly Primary School, on the edge of Box-Ironbark diggings, 40-minutes west of Bendigo. Old gold country. “Are you taking a metal detector?” asks a workmate. Talk of the recent $250,000 nugget find has whipped up a barrage of ‘what ifs’.
Leading teacher Judy Gibbs says the gold fever is nothing new around Dunolly. Prospectors come the world over the try their luck here. But as we all know, changing life for the better takes work and love, not windfalls. Subject in point is this primary school.
Judy is one of five Bendigo La Trobe alumni at the seven-teacher school. The others are Erin Holding, Luke Hutchins, Carla Scholes and Jacinda Polinelli. The group studied a Bachelor of Education at La Trobe between 1992 and 2014. Fellow teacher Leanne Britten and principal Katie Lovel studied at Ballarat.
We’ve come to see how a teaching staff can turn a school around. Judy says Dunolly Primary was once a no-go zone for many local families. “The school had a reputation for being quite rough,” Judy says. “I pulled our own children out of this school. That’s how bad it was.” Today it’s a different story.
Judy moved to Dunolly in 1992 at the age of 22, newly graduated, newly married, and pregnant with the first of three children. She and her husband had bought the town’s butcher shop and came to run the business together.
“The move to Dunolly was only going to be temporary, just until we could get on our feet, then we were going to move back to Bendigo,” Judy says. She’s well and truly part of the community now.
Once the local principal realised Judy was a qualified teacher, along came casual relief work. In 2000 she started as a sports teacher and librarian and in 2010 a full time classroom teacher. She’s seen first-hand the shift in attitudes and achievements at this country school over the past 15 years; because of new teachers, an increase in resources, specialist maths, literacy and welfare programs and a shift in the town’s demographic.
“We have a student-driven approach at the school,” Judy says. “We’ve definitely seen an increase in the literacy skills and mathematics. Whenever the children sit a NAPLAN test now, a lot of them are performing well and truly above the average.”
The wider Central Goldfields Shire community is now taking notice. “At one stage numbers of students here dropped to below 70, and now we’ve got 92,” Judy says. “Families are coming back to the school and we’ve got families from Maryborough who travel every day to bring their children to Dunolly Primary.”
LESSONS IN LIFE CHANGES
“If maths was a murder mystery, what sort of sum would it be?” asks student Bryce. “Take away.”
He gets a laugh from his teacher. “You’ve been telling me jokes all day Bryce,” she says. Grade 5/6 teacher Erin Holding is giving Bryce some one-on-one maths tuition in her break. Above and beyond the call of duty seems to characterise the teachers here.
“I don’t mind getting up at 5.30am and commuting from Kangaroo Flat to get here early so I can be organised,” Erin says. “I don’t mind the extra time I put in with my students to help them. I don’t mind the hard work.” Then again, Erin is used to it.
She enrolled to study a Bachelor of Education at 27 years of age and graduated in 2015 with honours, all the while juggling two part time jobs and being mum to her now 12-year-old son.
“I graduated from VCE in 2000 but I hadn’t done anything with it,” Erin says. “I really wanted to do something more with my life and I thought getting a degree would open up opportunities for me.”
Erin says without the Bendigo campus, studying wouldn’t have been an option for her. “I wouldn’t have moved to go to university. When you’re a single parent you can get anchored in a place and you can feel like opportunities are passing you by. The fact that La Trobe was in Bendigo meant I didn’t have to change my life, except to go to university.”
The students here have got an expert at how to turn your life around. “I know my son is really proud of me, too. I’m glad he saw me set a goal and reach it,” Erin says. “I feel like we have a better life. We’re not just scraping through every week. We’re enjoying a higher level of humanity.”
Erin spent her first year out of uni working as a casual relief teacher around Bendigo. Her ultimate goal was to teach Grade 5/6, believing that’s where her skills lay. “I didn’t think I would get there as quickly as I did. But I’m here now,” she says. “I’m in the deep end, but I’m in it with floaties on because the school has been so supportive of me. In Dunolly I’m getting opportunities to do things only a leading teacher would get to do in the city.”
Erin says joining a staff of mostly La Trobe alumni did give her an instant sense of community here. “We have a laugh and we talk a lot about our uni days around the staff room table,” she says. “We shared a lot of similar experiences.”
Erin says securing a full-time teaching position wasn’t easy. It’s competitive and the jobs are scarce if you don’t want to relocate to Melbourne. She encourages graduates to look at teaching regionally. “Dunolly Primary is a welcoming community with a high level of support for the staff and students,” she says. “They’re good country kids who respect you and love their school, and they love coming to school. It’s amazing how teachers who are passionate about their school can turn around its reputation and turn around its data and make it a great place for kids to come to school.”
FINDING COMMUNITY AND CREATIVITY
Carla Scholes can vouch for Dunolly Primary, as a teacher and a parent. Her two sons travel with their mum to school each weekday from river-side Laanecoorie, just ten minutes’ away. “Our principal also has three children here,” Carla says. “A lot of us have had our kids going through.”
Carla graduated from La Trobe in 2000. She taught at Echuca and Big Hill before her children were born, then joined the staff at Dunolly. This year she’s coordinating the arts program. It’s been a conduit to the wider community.
Carla and principal Katie recently secured a large grant for the school from the CASS Foundation. It helped buy a class set of iPads, which is enabling the kids to combine technology and creativity.
“They’re working with two local artists who have a background in photography, who are teaching them how to take a great photograph with an iPad,” Carla says. “The beauty of this project is that every child from Prep to Grade 6 can have success with it.”
The students have used the entire township as inspiration. They’ve visited the CFA, bowls club, historic court house, Welcome Record office and local business in search of the perfect shot.
The images will be shown at the grand old Dunolly Town Hall on October 8 and 9 before going on tour to the Bealiba Photography Exhibition. There’s just once catch… the photos must encompass the school’s values. “Our values are respect, achievement, resilience and community,” Carla says. They’re wholeheartedly embodied by all at this school. And that’s what’s golden.