A Principal Of Pride
By Stephen CrittendenDecember 7, 2012
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.
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.”