Community expectations and bias; reinforcing disadvantage in our schools

Karen Snibson, Collier Fellow and integral member of the Menzies School Leader Fellowship Program, shares her current experience as Principal, Phoenix P-12 Community College, Sebastopol, and the impact of students experiencing disadvantage everyday. She speaks of her leadership; as she focuses on addressing the disadvantage and determination to build aspiration.

Read on as Karen shares her week with us, as she battles stigma, bias and very real issues facing her community and school.


It is important that staff in our school see us address disadvantage as a part of our core business – this week this meant formalising the actions required
to ensure that we have lunches available for students who would otherwise go without eating through the day. A small but important step of ensuring
that we de-stigmatise the process of seeking food. To which the School funds this without hesitation.

I recognise the importance of modelling, by truly knowing our students and taking action to address the issues, with a singular focus on finding solutions.
So today I spent lunch time with one of our Year 12 girls. Her home life is extremely difficult, simply put she is completely isolated. We frankly
discuss the absolute need for her to get great results to escape her circumstances. She is scared because she is tiring and can’t keep up the energy
required to produce the results she needs. To assist, the School provides taxi vouchers so she can study late twice a week. This is a double winner
– as she is safe away from home and we can monitor her study. Without her knowledge I made arrangements for her to attend the Valedictory Dinner with
a new dress and shoes. She doesn’t need to be humiliated by our charity – but symbolically critical, she doesn’t miss out.

Planning for the 2020 cohort is more complex when you know many families will be pushed to the wall with the cost of uniform and computers. Many families
will have to choose between Christmas presents for the kids – or the requisites for school. And so, we press our supplier hard to ensure we achieve
a high quality device at the lowest possible cost. The school fully offsets the cost of the computer bag, and programming in addition to tech support.
Additionally, we work to forecast the number of devices of which the School will fully fund (i.e. the children who go without help would simply – go
without) and parents who will require assistance through Centre Pay.

Trauma effects all communities, but the impact seems to be greatest in communities where there isn’t enough money to go around. Some of our youngest learners
are coming to school so dysregulated they can’t function. Government departments such as DHHS are broken and cannot be relied upon to intervene in
a timely manner and parents/carers don’t have the funds to access support privately. It is imperative I lead in a way that empowers children’s learning,
supports teacher work and holds the system to account. As a school we must take the responsibility to meet our children at their point of need. We
are researching, budgeting and setting up to introduce a program called ‘Nurture’.

One of the hidden challenges that comes with leading in an underprivileged community is the disproportionately high number of students who are living in
out of home care. Local housing factors positively influence the number of ‘resi units’ in the area. So in addition to high numbers of students with
socio-economic disadvantage we also have a high number of students with family dislocation and fragmentation. My work efforts this week has been to
shine a spotlight on the issue. I am intentionally lobbying regional staff. This includes declining enrolment enquiries to force consideration of the
issue. I can’t be the principal that forces the school into a state of distress whilst we keep doing the heavy lifting for an entire town. We need
support from the system and other schools in the area to holistically provide for these most vulnerable children.

Learn more about the Menzies School Leader Fellowship Program