At the start of this year, there were children who arrived for their first day of primary school in Victoria unable to speak a word of English. They may have also spent every day of their young lives solely in their mother’s care.
They likely joined a class of young children who could speak English and were comfortable in building new relationships with professional adult carers after attending kindergarten.
Many primary school teachers in culturally and linguistically diverse areas are capable of helping students catch up quickly. But when there are several children presenting to a Prep class with separation issues, potential learning difficulties and little spoken English, the task quickly becomes insurmountable.
It’s not good for anyone – the development of the whole class can stagnate, while those starting behind rarely catch up. Fortunately, non-profit organisation Community Hubs Australia is addressing this issue.
The National Community Hubs Program supports migrant and refugee families, particularly mothers with young children. They connect women with their children’s schools, with each other and with organisations that can provide health, education and support.
There are currently 41 Hubs across Victoria, placed in primary schools with highly diverse student populations.
Community Hubs oversees the national network, while ‘Hub leaders’ coordinate the classes and activities delivered in schools for the parents and their children. The program includes playgroup, English and work skills classes, introductions to important services and more.Many classes and workshops are run out of Community Hubs, including English language classes for parents
The Hubs have proven to be an essential resource and source of community for hundreds of new migrants over the last several years. Perhaps surprisingly, they have even grown in popularity amid school closures brought about by the pandemic.
‘This is a service that was designed entirely around being place-based,’ Community Hubs Australia CEO Sonja Hood says. ‘So, there was a big question of how do you run a place-based service without place? We realised the thing that matters most isn't place, it's connection.’
Many Hub leaders rose to the challenges brought by COVID-19 and were called on as a trusted source of support by parents.
‘Last year was focused on emergency help – food, housing, connecting women to family violence services,’ Hood explains. ‘This was pretty confronting for the leaders, when you consider the services that they are used to running.’
While this work has continued, the Community Hubs have also settled back into regular programming, transitioning many of their classes and support groups online.
The Community Hub at Dandenong West Primary School has been one of Victoria’s leaders in building a thriving virtual community through the pandemic.
The VMC caught up with the school’s principal, Bev Hansen and Community Hub co-leaders Rahima Rizai and Abby Rezek, to learn how they turned their Hub into the focal point of the school’s new migrant community, despite 6 lockdowns!
VMC: Bev, can you tell me about what made you get involved in the CommunityHubs program at first?
Bev Hansen: I started at Dandenong West in 2010 and one of the things we first talked about was the challenges in getting our parents engaged with the school.
My philosophical belief about education is that the school serves its community, and we do that best by bringing parents into the school to partner with us in the education of their children.
Our school has about 90% of families who speak a language other than English first. We quickly found out that it wasn’t that our parents didn’t want to be engaged, it was just that we hadn’t found the right ways to connect with them and help them understand what education can look like in Australia. Once we opened the doors, they felt welcomed.
We had tried a few different programs before the Community Hub. We had an active after school family program, craft groups and walking groups. We engaged parents in a whole range of activities. One staff member who worked across these projects eventually became the first Community Hub leader in the school.
Rahima, can you walk me through what the Community Hub program looks like at Dandenong West?
Rahima Rizai: So, there are a few parts to it. We have multilingual playgroup, where parents can bring their young children in and connect with other parents. They’re welcome to speak in their own languages. We run English classes for the parents as well. We also run information sessions and classes with other service providers based on community needs. This might mean we invite a nurse or someone from Services Australia to come and speak about a topic and answer parents’ questions.
Abby Rezek: We have also run cooking classes, computer classes, craft and sewing groups. Basically, any need for connection or education our community has, we try to find a way to help them get it.Community Hub co-leaders Rahima Rizai and Abigail Rezek
Brilliant. These programs sound like they would require parents to come together in person. How have the Hubs managed to stay active through all the school closures?
Abby Rezek: Obviously when we were onsite, we had quite a few more programs happening. But even with the COVID situation, people still have the same needs. We were very quick to jump on the Zoom bandwagon. We just thought, ‘OK, we can't meet in person, so let's get our people online.’
It was a challenge at first. Computer literacy skills were quite low, and because English is their second language, we did have to spend a lot of time individually calling people to assist them to set up Zoom. But once we were able to do that, and our participants became more familiar and confident with the technology, they were quite happy to have everything on there.
In the end, we saw our Hub programs really thrive during COVID. Participation grew a lot, and beyond just our school. We were even able to bring on a few new programs, including a fitness program in the mornings and we added more English classes to our schedule as well.
Has the Hub helped the parents forge lasting connections between each other?
Rahima: Many new participants met each other through Zoom in our English classes. So, when we have been out of lockdown, we know people have created their own friendship groups and met each other in their houses. They were getting together and having morning teas.
When we’ve come back into lockdown, they’ve continued this friendship and are calling each other on Zoom and WhatsApp. So, yes, they are definitely in touch, which is very, very good to see.
That’s great. Have you heard much other feedback about the Community Hub?
Bev: Yes, definitely. The parents are always very grateful, especially for how we celebrate the many different cultures we have here. We are often told that Dandenong West is a very welcoming school. The Hub forms a central part of why parents feel that way, because it’s not just words spoken in the office – these are genuine programs parents can join.
Reviewed 18 October 2021