A connected regional community starts at school

Sunday, 01 Aug 2021

Many rural and regional Australian communities have experienced considerable growth in the last few years due to our city-based friends and families relocating for a sea or tree change. And Coffs Harbour is no stranger to this, particularly with the recent cultural changes resulting from COVID restrictions, and the exciting opportunities that come with announcements like the new film and television hub out at Pacific Bay Resort. 

This growth, while welcome to many, does cause pressure on our current community facilities such as our business districts, our hospitals, our recreation spaces and our schools. Schools in the Coffs Harbour region have experienced growth in demand for student places, but beyond this is a school community’s responsibility for connecting our new citizens to a wider community. Schools must not only take on this responsibility but also cherish this as an opportunity to learn and build relationships, to increase diversity in experience, nationalities, and of course, cultural fabric.

This is where schools need to play a bigger role in providing opportunities for a greater sense of community, through real connections. This geographic growth and its accompanying shifts in our greater community is an opportunity for schools to turn their thinking around from being insular, to considering the context of the broader community and how a school can not only shape change-makers, but be a part of that change broadly in their local community.   

We must open our doors to the community. We must create greater links with businesses, with industry, with universities, with childcare centres and pre-schools, with aged care facilities, with service clubs, with city councils and government departments, with sporting clubs and cultural groups. We must create greater opportunities for our families to feel part of a strong, dynamic and connected community.  

Richard Gervers, in his book entitled Simple Thinking states: “Success is not complicated; it doesn’t have a secret formula; it is about people, behaviours and attitudes.” My philosophy of education and my vision for schools as community engagement hubs is not a complex one. However, it may be a busy and dynamic one, always seeking improvement and being flexible.  The tenets for improvement have their basis in three simple touch points: connections, relationships and opportunities. 

Connections - all people are valuable. All interactions are an opportunity to learn. Social connections, however small, can provide an opportunity to lower anxiety, promote empathy, increase self-esteem and build community. 

Relationships - Strong ties with family, friends and the school community provide us with happiness, security, support and a sense of purpose. These relationships are particularly important in tough times and I think we all recognise their importance during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Opportunities - Schools provide not only the literacy and numeracy building blocks that allow our students to actively participate in society but exciting hands-on learning experiences, academic enrichment programs, sporting opportunities, performing and visual arts experiences, school camps and community service experiences. 

As I say to my students, you only get out of school what you put in. Effort and opportunity breeds engagement and improvement. At the foundation, school communities don’t simply stand to create this opportunity within our immediate back yard, but to be a part of the people, behaviours and attitudes of our broader neighbourhood and community. 

Nick Johnstone 

This article first appeared in the August 2021 edition of Focus Magazine