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<p>Courtesy Stronger Smarter Institute</p>

Courtesy Stronger Smarter Institute

Dr Chris Sarra’s “stronger smarter” philosophy changed lives at Cherbourg State School.

A Principal Of Pride

When kids think being smart is not part of their identity, they fail. One indigenous educator’s story of school transformation.


Cherbourg State School’s first indigenous school principal travelled the couple of hours’ drive north from Brisbane in 1998 and arrived to find what he describes as a “disaster area”. The playground was filthy, the kids were running amok, absenteeism was high, and literacy rates were terrible.

Dr Chris Sarra says that was regarded as normal.

Sarra, 45, says what was going on at Cherbourg was caused by a “collusion of low expectations” among students, parents, the local community and the Queensland Education Department — and he was determined to fix it. His approach was based on the idea of “high expectations relationships”. If there was dysfunction in many local Aboriginal families, he says, that wasn’t an excuse for low expectations when kids came to school.

Over six years he transformed Cherbourg on the twin principles of “stronger, smarter”. As he explained it to the local council, parents, local elders and staff:

“The aim at Cherbourg State School is to deliver academic outcomes that are comparable to any other school in Queensland, and to nurture a strong and positive sense of being Aboriginal in a contemporary society.”

In 2005, Sarra founded the Stronger Smarter Institute at Queensland University of Technology, and he has just published a memoir, Good Morning, Mr Sarra (University of Queensland Press), which he says he wrote in the hope of inspiring young indigenous Australians to aim for success.

He is not interested in victimhood, and victimhood doesn’t come into his own life story.

Part of what makes Sarra’s story so appealing is that it resonates beyond his Aboriginality. In a very contemporary way, he wants to celebrate what he describes as a “layered identity”.

Sarra grew up in Bundaberg, in the same street as the Bundaberg Rum distillery. The youngest of 10 sports-mad brothers and sisters, he is the son of an Aboriginal mother, and an Italian father who left a wife and three children behind in Abruzzo when he came to Queensland after World War II.

At his first teaching appointment — to Cecil Plains, west of Toowoomba — Sarra realised immediately that the poor country kids at that school were also conditioned to accept a lower standard of education and to expect lower standards from themselves. So he realised it wasn't only an indigenous issue he was responding to — that the "stronger smarter" philosophy he came up with is more widely applicable.

Lani Guinier, an African-American, Jewish, Harvard University law professor whom Bill Clinton nominated as his assistant attorney-general for civil rights (and later withdrew because of Republican opposition), has also written about the idea that race issues should be viewed as a “canary in the mine” of wider systemic threats to equal opportunity for all.

“Somehow we as young black people have been tricked into thinking that our cultural identity, our sense of identity, means that we have to be on the bottom.”

In this video interview with The Global Mail, Sarra explains why he is opposed to the policy of linking welfare payments to school attendance. He says the policy undermines the kind of “honourable” relationships he is interested in fostering between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.

Sarra is at his most interesting talking about “horizontal anger” within Aboriginal communities, and a tendency he sees for some Aboriginal people to drag each other down. He says some Aboriginal kids think that by running amok, displaying anti-social behaviour, or turning their backs on education, they are somehow reinforcing their Aboriginal identity.

“I’ve watched it with young black kids in Australia and in fact in other parts of the world, where somehow we as young black people have been tricked into thinking that our cultural identity, our sense of identity, means that we have to be on the bottom. And anybody aspiring to be above that is perceived to be trying to be like white people.”

He says he saw this among the kids at Cherbourg. “And I would say to them, ‘It’s okay for us to be smart, we’re not losing our sense of being Aboriginal. In fact, the more we become educated, the greater capacity we have to read and understand about our sense of cultural identity. If we can read well, that’s power.”

13 comments on this story
by Moya Henderson

Must read this tomorrow, but I heard Dr Sarra's talk on radio in the wee hours a couple of nights ago and I was mightily impressed. The best philosophy on Indigenous education I've ever heard.

December 7, 2012 @ 9:13pm
by John Fraser

This bloke really stands tall in Australia.

December 7, 2012 @ 9:13pm
by Ruth Lipscombe

If our politicians were smarter than they are they would listen to what this real educator has to say,they might learn something which would open their eyes to the fact that we are ignoring/wasting the intellectual capacities of the People of The First Nation.
I hope this article is circulated widely through the Aboriginational Nation.

December 8, 2012 @ 8:51am
by Evan

I think Chris is a truly wonderful human being. More power to his arm!

December 8, 2012 @ 9:42am
by walter p komarnicki

beyond the layers of the onion - beyond artificial concepts of race, gender, language - is the real person, and 'victimhood' is nothing to do with it, it's a place where the playing field has been leveled and people can address the issues, beyond the personal.

December 8, 2012 @ 11:12am
by Susan Thorman

Thank you Stephen for a very interesting and informative article on Dr Sarra's refreshing and above all enabling argument regarding the need to deliver better outcomes in education through genuine respect and authentic relationships with those who are to be educated. Dr Sarra speaks with a warm humanity and keen intelligence that combine to make him a very significant and talented educator. Thank you for bringing his wisdom to a wider audience. I look forward to reading his book and feel richer for knowing of his efforts and accomplishments.

December 8, 2012 @ 12:00pm
by Hugh Wilson

Dr. Chris Sarra has a mindset and something of a model for all schools, as he shows in this story from his time at Cecil Plains, that could and should be adapted for our state schools, certainly here in Queensland.

I first heard about this educator on an ABC program, possibly Lifematters, years ago, when I was trying to represent parents in Toowoomba as the QCPCA Toowoomba District representative.

In discussions with the local office of Ed Qld on what Chris Sarra had said about the deal he put to the staff at Cherbourg, along the lines of 'you can take some responsibility for the low literacy and high truancy rates', which saw a large number of white staff leave, I was met with a blank stare and then a series of defensive comments, the usual stuff that comes from EQ when asked to account for their performance.

Later, having visited Brisbane's Buranda State School for a day to understand the philosophy program there, with two other parents to see what could be achieved in our region, even within the Ed Qld system, in another round of discussions on the underwhelming performance of local schools I was told, in all seriousness, that to change to and adapt a Buranda SS style program in our region would be to undo the work of many and cast doubt on their performance to date.

Indeed! And why not?

Buranda's principal was already being whisked overseas to advise Scandinavian governments on her efforts.

The one thing Gillard has not achieved, or even attempted to achieve, is an 'education revolution' here in Qld, or probably anywhere else in Australia.

Websites, NAPLAN, tin sheds and funding $500m of tax monies into evangelical Christianity fed into schools via 'chaplains', does not make any sort of useful contribution to improving education and is a far cry form the only 'education revolution' Australia has ever had, in the 1860s when 'free, compulsory and secular' was the objective..

People like Dr. Chris Sarra, and the now departed principal of Buranda State School do create something of a localised education revolution, resented though their efforts may be within the monolithic and moncultural structures of our state education departments.

December 8, 2012 @ 3:09pm
by Anne Marks

A great interview with a great Australian. Congratulations.

December 8, 2012 @ 5:57pm
by Kevin Childs

Dr Sarra is a highly accomplished changemaker. His immediate recognition of the institutionalised disabling of Aboriginal and non Aboriginal people based entirely on a wealth or class basis is the foundation of steps to build equality of peoples. So many pedagogical relationships are established on the basis of class and expectation of failure that it is obvious that the education revolution has a long way to go.

In my observations of education practice today I sense that this egregious disabling continues. As a parent seeking to raise a child equipped with resilience and optimism and self respect, I believe it is essential to have this mindset reinforced at schools. The people of Cherbourg, like all of us, expect no less and to know that Chris Sarra has revealed the myth and reversed the curse is a fine thing. All schools could do to emulate the methodology.

December 10, 2012 @ 8:03pm
by Charlote King

It's important to realise that this is just one strategy of approaching education for Aboriginal people. It's also worth noting amid all the congratulations to Mr Sarra that his school simply gets rid of students that are too difficult or dysfunctional, or who don't attend regularly. Good for the stats, but where does it leave those kids?

It's all well and good to say that family difficulties are no excuse for poor results or behaviour at school, but this attitude only isolates those children further, who find it hard to function normally, considering they're extremely difficult home life. Where do they end up? Often in the juvenile justice system. You can't just tell these kids to pull it together and do some equations. If we're going to have this hardline option for the average kids, there should also be an alternative that provides a safe place for the ones who can't cope in a normal setting.

The Victorian government just got rid of the only alternative education option for these kids in the state's north west. It'll be interesting to see where they end up.

December 10, 2012 @ 9:56pm
Show previous 10 comments
by Andy Fitzharry

"that his school simply gets rid of students that are too difficult or dysfunctional, or who don't attend regularly. Good for the stats but where does it leave those kids?"

Sounds like all private schools then? And most state schools too.

Perhaps, given the available technology, it is well past time to redesign our public schools considerably, away from the 19th Century sausage factories they are, the industrial chimmney's full of scrabbling dust mites, into something smaller, more human than a K-12, and less frequently run by ill-equipped principals who spend their time trying to emulate the local faith schools in uniform style, shoe rules and hair colours/lengths - all very important matters ? - and try to find, or train if need be, some far more authentic people with real ideas on education?

But that would require leadership, and there is very little of that in the education industry, or in politics, particularly in politics.

The Victorian Government, like most of them, would rather give money to fund school chaplains to pray for the kiddies than do anything of value to help them.

And of course, it is the exact same school principals who are driving the move away from secular schooling and turning public schools into recruiting grounds for empty pew churches who also run public schools as if they owned them, and got rid of anyone who doesn't fit the model student model.

Maybe Sarra does dump students as you say Charlotte, how about some evidence though?

December 13, 2012 @ 11:00am
by Brian

I'm frustrated by Charlotte's comments. Sarra explicitly stated that these were not exclusively Aboriginal issues -- if you treat people dumb, they will act dumb. Also, Sarra has been going around long enough that saying that he just drops kids who don't measure up seems grossly unfair. Ultimately, you can't help someone who won't help themselves. It _is_ very hard to know what to do with these people, but if you've given them every chance and the choice is between expelling someone determined to be a loser or dragging a whole class or school down, expel the loser. Everyone has potential, Sarra is giving them an opportunity. Accusing him of being a charlatan or ineffective because one school principal can't fix all social ills is going way too far.

December 13, 2012 @ 3:14pm
by jaggy

please admire Charlotte for her ability to nothing good for anyone, except critizise someone who is trying to do something good.

April 20, 2013 @ 9:50am
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