A primary school building brighter Indigenous futures

A Redfern Jarjum College junior class. Photo: Redfern Jarjum College/Instagram.

Youth editor Corin Shearston profiles Redfern Jarjum College – a unique school for Indigenous students.

Situated on a significant site for Indigenous history, Redfern Jarjum College has been developing better futures for disadvantaged Aboriginal children since 2013. Planning for the free Jesuit primary school commenced in 2009, when St Aloysius’ College in Milsons Point was granted a lease on the site at 117 Redfern Street.

With the site having first been commissioned as a school by the Irish-Catholic Patrician Brothers in 1885, a school operated there until 1967, just as the Redfern area became a refuge for Aboriginal people after they were ousted from camps in southeastern Sydney. The school’s 2013 re-opening, this time as a school for Indigenous kids, represented an appropriate alignment of the area’s history and culture.

Following the Jesuit connection, Jarjum’s current principal Matt Smith came to the school in 2018 after resigning from St Ignatius in Riverview. He told the Sentinel the relocation took him from serving one end of the socioeconomic spectrum to the other, due to St Ignatius’ being a “big independent boarding school for boys … welcoming quite an affluent demographic”. However, Matt’s move to Jarjum College was almost like a return to the start of his teaching career in Blacktown, where he worked closely with Aboriginal families. “It wasn’t completely foreign to me,” he said.

L-R: Principal Matt Smith and Senior Class teacher Tina Brayan. Photos: Redfern Jarjum College.

Jarjum College maintains a close connection to Aboriginal families through employing eight staff and five Indigenous teachers for 22 students. As Matt explained, Jarjum’s Indigenous staff have “a really strong voice in designing our culture program”. Matt has now seen three small graduating groups come through the school, and has helped graduating students access further education of their own choosing. Jarjum College has no school captain, preferring the collective distribution of responsibility over a singular bestowal of title. This is done to ensure empowerment for all students. 

Empowerment is surely a vital thing to nurture in a small school offering additional free services, such as uniforms and lunches. Another key focus is providing the appropriate care for each individual student, who are often referred to Jarjum College after failing academically or skipping attendance from other primary schools. It is for this reason annual enrolments are generally limited to 20 students. Comprehensive assessments are compulsory for each new student, with further options for professional specialists and case management plans. Jarjum College also has their own paediatrician to engage new students with appropriate support services. 

A classroom at Redfern Jarjum College. Photo: Redfern Jarjum College/supplied.

“It’s the first school I’ve ever been at where the kids don’t want to go on holidays … the environment is stimulating and rewarding.”

– Matt Smith, pricipal

“I feel like its really made a difference to the community,” Matt told the Sentinel.

We spoke with Senior Class teacher Tina Brayan and four students at lunchtime over Zoom. As they spoke to us from a large, colourful room adorned with art, history and motivational messages, it was exciting to see that these students appeared confident, comfortable and enthusiastic. 

“I like having all these teachers here and all the kids here to play with,” one boy explained.

“All the teachers help us,” said the only girl of the group. Tina told us more boys attend Jarjum College than girls, and we discovered that quite a few siblings attend the school too.

“I like that we can play with our friends, [and] I like that we do a lot of work,” another boy noted.

Fun activities at the school mentioned by the students included word searches and language learning. “I like lots of languages,” another boy told the Sentinel, while Tina noted proudly: “They’re pretty good at art.”

As principal Matt explained, “It’s the first school I’ve ever been at where the kids don’t want to go on holidays … the environment is stimulating and rewarding and they feel secure there”.

A selected gallery of artwork from students at Jarjum College. Images: Redfern Jarjum College/supplied.

They all expressed passions for music, especially hip hop, with a majority of them also fans of the sports of football, basketball or boxing. They told the Sentinel they’d like to pursue careers in music or sport later in life – or both – with one young boy saying he’d like to invent his own sport shoe, like the Air Jordan sneaker.

After another young boy told us he’d like to get into the NBA to play basketball while being a rapper and gamer in LA, a shy young girl quietly said she’d like to be a singer. 

Redfern Jarjum College’s first official rap song, ‘Young Black & Deadly!’, released in 2018.
Video: Redfern Jarjum College/YouTube.

Through Jarjum College’s recent involvement with arts collective Heaps Decent and the Music Making A Difference charity, some of their students’ rap careers have already begun. Following on from their first official rap song in 2018, the school is currently making a new rap track with a member of Music Making A Difference, who was writing and recording with the students before the Covid-19 lockdown. She’s still able to collaborate with students over zoom video calls. Last year, one of the rap tracks that Heaps Decent recorded with some of the students was played on FBi Radio.

Students from Redfern Jarjum College meet Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore while swimming at the nearby National Centre for Indigenous Excellence. Photo: Redfern Jarjum College/supplied.

As for the curriculum of Jarjum College, an Aboriginal perspective is strongly woven throughout and applied especially to history and geography. Many Indigenous stories are included in the literacy program, in order to keep learning relevant. Even though Jarjum College teaches Australian history in a similar way to a typical primary school, the students raise different types of questions. Curiosity surrounds topics such as the Stolen Generations, as all of the students’ families were affected by the act at some level.

“The way we unpack that history is different but its also handled in a sensitive way with the Indigenous voice represented,” Matt explained. 

Through participation with community partners, Jarjum College is able to offer a diverse Indigenous and Torres Strait culture program for their students involving music, art, dance and tribal language learning. Although certain students have left their traditional nations to attend the school, elders can teach the language of these nations to students through Zoom video meetings. 

Students from Redfern Jarjum College participate in a traditional cultural ceremony. Photo: Redfern Jarjum College/supplied.

Due to the current Covid-19 outbreak, the college shifted their teaching completely online on 30 July. Prior to that, they operated within a mixed model framework, incorporating onsite and online learning supported or substituted by homework packs or work books. Teaching assistance was also deployed. The school faced a similar situation last year, but Matt described the Covid-19 threat as “a bit more present in Sydney this time around”, stating that students and staff are “pretty immobile at the moment”. 

Nevertheless, Jarjum College is still able to act as a positive influence upon the tricky lives of disadvantaged Indigenous children, as they build the capacity to steer themselves away from harmful influences in their communities.

“You can see real examples of lives changing,” Matt explains, his voice rich with affection. “We’re the only school of our kind that I’m aware of.”

‘Jarjum’ is an Aboriginal word for children, child or young person. Redfern Jarjum College is guided by its motto, ‘here to shine’, which is inspired from the Gadigal word ‘gili’, meaning ‘light’ or ‘spark’.

Corin Shearston is the youth editor of the Sydney Sentinel.