Kathleen Noonan
Kathleen Noonan

When schoolies are also mummies



ON PAPER, teaching is the exchange of knowledge but we all know that's only part of it. On paper, family is supposed to be people related to you who care, value and nurture you but we know, in reality, that too can be bollocks. On paper, Australia is a wonderfully egalitarian place, a level playing field, where everyone is given a fair go. Again, a furphy.

Kathleen Noonan.
Kathleen Noonan.

Walk into Ipswich State High School and wander past the fields where new classroom buildings have been promised by successive state governments - and there are still none - and ponder the school's unrelenting annual growth rate and think, how does that work?

Against all odds, because teachers and principals like to pull velveteen rabbits out of threadbare hats, life-changing things are happening here at Ipswich. Things that make me shiver. Like the Year 12 graduation ceremony that included six students from the Young Families Connect program, the only south-east Queensland flexi-school for young mothers, run by Corinne Harper, who has dedicated her career to removing the barriers to learning for pregnant and parenting young women.

On graduation day, out of the six students with babies, only one set of parents turned up to watch. There were tears of disappointment but there's a whole sackful of reasons for the absences, so let's not be too judgey about it. But what did happen is one of the girl was too upset to go on stage. Step up, passionate teacher, who urgently says something like: "Right. You've worked so hard. You are going to get up there because we will be down here and we want to be cheering for you. For you!'' The student dries the tears and takes to the stage.

The teachers go mad cheering. Yes teaching may, on paper, be about the exchange of information, but at the guts of it, it's all about believing in someone and caring enough to fight for them. Some of these young women live independently with their babies, away from dysfunctional families ripped apart by poverty, abuse, domestic violence, mental health issues, drugs and alcohol. They've escaped hellholes. So when someone gives a damn, it's pretty big.

Last time I wrote about this program, a donation came from an older farmer. Decades ago, he and his wife became pregnant very young, so understood the struggle and wished to help. Investing in these girls is like putting money into already tempered steel. By the time they finish Year 12, they are resilient, adaptable, hardworking multi-taskers.

They've overcome snide remarks, stigma, exhaustion, loneliness and crippling self-doubt. All six are the first in their families to finish Year 12 and sometimes, instead of being celebrated, that's resented. They don't have to be here. They have chosen to return to school with an eye on a job or TAFE or university. Says one: "I am showing my daughter to never give up on your education." The week after graduation, they're voluntarily back in the classroom, working on their resumes.


Three years ago I came to this school to see powerhouse Corinne Harper running this program, with the backing of principal Simon Riley, who urges other schools to copy their model. "There are 150 live births to school-age females each year in Ipswich. We've 25 here at the school. Where are the rest of them? What about the rest of the state?" Next year 40 are expected. I ask Harper for a wish list. Considering the game-changing nature of this work, it's pretty modest.
1. They need a serviced bus, to be fitted with baby seats. There is no train line close to the school and some are taking more than an hour to travel there by bus, train and bus again - with a baby. So a bus is desperately needed. "Doesn't have to be new. We just need access to one Monday to Friday."
2. Donations to help with the grocery bill to fill the school fridge and pantry. Sometimes there's no food at home.
3. Funding for a school camp. These young mothers have never experienced school camp, which has just been too hard and too costly, with babies.
4. An outdoor playground. The crèche and playroom is in a classroom and there is no outdoor play area for the babies and toddlers, an essential in any childcare facility.

Late that day, I'm in a Brisbane bar where people chat about their kids' graduations, the pricey necklace one dad gave his daughter, and one son's gift of Bitcoin. (Jeez, what happened to the pat on the shoulder and "That'll do pig, that'll do" or something like that I received?) "Oh he's spoiled rotten, skiing in Japan," says one mother. Complaining about how entitled your kids are seems the new way to humble brag. Sometimes this town has too much money. Needing fresh air, I drift outside on to the street at the Gabba and standing in the quiet night, think of Corinne Harper and all the teachers out there who care and cheer. And those terrific, tenacious girls standing on the brink of their lives. Readers, to help or donate, contact charp27@eq.edu.au


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